AT&T To Give Free Wi-Fi Access, With A Catch

Wi-Fi wireless

Qualifying AT&T customers can now access free Wi-Fi at more than 17,000 hot spots including nearly 7,000 participating Starbucks locations. Free Wi-Fi is also available at thousands more AT&T Wi-Fi locations like airports, hotels, restaurants and elsewhere across the U.S.

To unlock the Wi-Fi, users must subscribe to AT&T's LaptopConnect, a service that uses AT&T's wireless network for Internet access anywhere users can make a phone call.

According to AT&T, qualifying LaptopConnect customers will now automatically receive a pop-up message telling them that Wi-Fi is available when they are in range of an AT&T hot spot. From there, if users have downloaded the latest AT&T Communications Manager software to their laptop, they just click "connect" to access free Wi-Fi.

When not in a hot spot, LaptopConnect cards operate on AT&T's wireless network, which offers DSL-like speeds on the company's 3G network, which currently reaches more than 275 U.S. markets, with nearly 350 markets expected by the end of 2008. AT&T's wireless network also offers data connectivity on AT&T's EDGE network, with coverage in more than 13,000 cities and towns and roughly 40,000 miles of major highways. AT&T also offers data access in more than 145 countries and 3G roaming in 60 countries.

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AT&T said the service is available to customers who subscribe to a monthly DataConnect plan of $59.99 or more. AT&T Communication Manager comes with new LaptopConnect cards and can be downloaded for free. AT&T added that LaptopConnect users must have AT&T Communication Manager version 6.8 or higher installed on their laptop and support for free Wi-Fi using AT&T Communication Manager is only for laptops running Windows operating systems.

"The combination of the nation's largest wireless and Wi-Fi networks is unbeatable," said AT&T vice president of business mobility products Michael Woodward in a statement. "It's the ultimate in mobility for laptops -- AT&T's wireless network plus more than 17,000 Wi-Fi locations.

Qualifying broadband subscribers can also get in on free Wi-Fi and AT&T said it plans to expand the free Wi-Fi program to additional wireless customers in the future.

The move to free Wi-Fi access comes just weeks after AT&T unseated T-Mobile as the hot spot service of choice at Starbucks coffee shops, a distinction T-Mobile had held since 2001. With T-Mobile Starbucks surfers needed a paid subscription to access Wi-Fi service. With AT&T in place, all customers can receive two free hours per day, with a fee of $3.99 for an additional two hours. Monthly subscriptions will run about $20, but will give users access to other AT&T hot spots. And, of course, AT&T LaptopConnect customers can surf for free. Under an agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile, T-Mobile HotSpot subscribers will continue to have Wi-Fi access in Starbucks.