SBC Raises Wi-Fi Bar

In May, Verizon won praise for readying 1,000 Wi-Fi access points in downtown New York.

Asked for comment, SBC executives said they had their own plan and wouldn’t wait to evaluate the success its Baby Bell brethren before charging ahead — it wasn’t just bluster.

Today, the San Antonio, Texas, company unveiled FreedomLink, the telecom industry’s most ambitious wireless Internet initiative to date.

Over three years, SBC will deploy 20,000 hotspots in 6,000 venues, including hotels, airports, convention centers in 13 states. Through a roaming deal with Wayport, subscribers can tap 650 more access points nationwide. Agreements with other Wi-Fi providers are expected.

SBC will also tie together its Wi-Fi and third generation services, as it looks to land new customers (especially business travelers) and keep existing ones from defecting to its cable broadband rivals, most noteably Comcast.

“Our primary targets are frequent business travelers and our embedded base of broadband customers,” SBC spokesman Wes Warnock said. “Over time, we expect FreedomLink to evolve into a mass market service.”

Initially, users will pay a one-time fee for daily sessions. Later, monthly subscriptions will be available. Ultimately, it will be bundled with digital subscriber line , wireless and local and long-distance phone services.

SBC has been among the most aggressive in the industry in bundling, recently adding satellite TV services thanks to a pact with EchoStar.

The company declined to cite costs of the Wi-Fi equipment, but Warnock said the “incremental capital required to deploy Wi-Fi hot spots is relatively low and will not impact our overall capital budget.” In many cases, SBC will use its public telephone infrastructure for hotspots.

SBC is evaluating proposals from equipment vendors and should announce contracts shortly. Currently, SBC offers hotspots for enterprise (using Cisco gear) and home customers (using 2Wire gear). Cisco, as well as Proxim and Symbol, are expected to be among those vying for the business.

For Wayport, the deal comes after agreements with Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS. More than 200,000 people connect to the company’s network each month. Most are Wayport customers, but roaming deals are picking up.

In addition to roaming, Wayport will handle back-end functions for SBC. Once SBC reaches a certain number of hotspots, Wayport users can access the telecom’s network as well.

“It’s a very strong partnership and it shows that big folks like SBC and the carriers are starting to take this seriously,” said Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing at Wayport.

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