It’s All About Wireless Data for AT&T

Getting connected may get a bit easier for laptop users subscribed to AT&T (NYSE: T) services as the leading U.S. carrier is providing free access to more than 17,000 Wi-Fi hot spots nationwide.

Subscribers of AT&T’s LaptopConnect wireless broadband service who are also using the carrier’s Communication Manager tool will receive a pop-up message about available networks when in range of a AT&T hotspot.

“This is about the strength of our Wi-Fi networks and providing a value-add to our laptop users,” Warner May, an AT&T spokesperson, told

The available Wi-Fi spots include airports, hotels and eateries, AT&T said. Those venues also include 7,000 Starbucks locations as well: through a deal announced in February, AT&T is taking over as the Wi-Fi provider in the omnipresent coffee chain from rival T-Mobile.

The move aims to capitalize in part on the increasing number of mobile workers who want Wi-Fi while traveling or working offsite.

Juniper Research predicts 4.2 billion people will own mobile devices by 2013, and research firm Strategy Analytics expects 290 million mobile handsets will have been sold in the first quarter of 2008, an increase of 12 percent compared with the second quarter of 2007.

The new Wi-Fi offer also suggests AT&T knows that the money is increasingly in mobile data. The company’s first-quarter profit grew 21.5 percent from the previous year, thanks in part to strength in IP data revenue — which increased 22.9 percent — and its number of enterprise and consumer Internet customers, which increased 13.9 percent.

AT&T, however, is just one of a slew of vendors looking to expand their Wi-Fi footprint. In March, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) announced its Rural Connective Platform aimed at developing technology to beam Internet connections out to rural areas too far from any local connections.

The news also comes as AT&T rival Sprint Nextel (NYSE: N) is investing heavily in next-generation WiMAX connectivity, along with a long list of partners including Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Intel.

While AT&T declined to provide specific LaptopConnect subscriber figures, the carrier has 5 million remote access business customers and 12 million broadband and Internet service users. According to a statement, the company plans to expand free Wi-Fi access to additional wireless customers in the future.

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