Will AT&T Deliver Free Wi-Fi to Smartphone Users?

Will or won’t AT&T offer free Wi-Fi hotspot service to iPhone and other smartphone users? Is the carrier planning to greatly increase service speeds over its 3G data network on its way to 4G? The answer is yes to both questions. It’s just a matter of when.

First, it seemed like it would deliver free Wi-Fi to iPhone owners, then the opposite appeared to be true. Some folks even reported receiving such service last week, only to have it disconnected later on.

Most recently, the carrier said on its Web site it was delivering this type of service with the iPhone. But nothing happened. Then the statement to that affect on AT&T’s Web site was removed only hours after it appeared.

Finally, some clarity…sort of:

According to an AT&T spokesperson Fletcher Cook, speaking with The New York Times, the statement on AT&T site was a mistake. However, he added that the country’s leading mobile operator would eventually deliver network access at hotspots–it runs over 17,000 of them, including those at Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and at airports–for all the Wi-Fi smartphones it supports.

“Our Wi-Fi network is a great way of differentiating the AT&T network and giving customers another reason to choose us over a competitor,” Cook said to The Times.

Okay. That’s great, but when? Cook wouldn’t say.

In related news, AT&T wireless yesterday unveiled plans to bump up the performance of its 3G cellular-wireless data network, beginning next year. With the deployment of HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) Release 7, AT&T plans to bump performance in excess of an extremely fast 20 megabits per second.

The network upgrade (mostly a software process) is the next step for AT&T on its way to the deployment of 4G performance with the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology sometime in 2010. LTE promises to boost speeds up to and beyond an astonishing 100 megabits per second.

“LTE will allow for backwards compatibility to GSM and HSPA, which is a great benefit to customers,” explained AT&T mobility head Ralph de la Vega at Morgan Stanley’s annual Communications Conference, reported AppleInsider. “And our path forward to LTE allows us to get there step-by-step, with interim steps that will deliver more and more speeds everyday.”

Sounds good to us.

More on 4G LTE, backed by the 3G Partnership Project, is one of three technologies competing to replace mobile operators’ third-generation (EV-DO for CDMA carriers like Verizon; UTMS/HSPDA for operators GSM operators like AT&T) wireless networks. In addition to LTE, there’s WiMAX–Sprint’s choice–and UMB (short for Ultra Mobile Broadband) as well.

All of these technologies are supposed to eventually deliver data-transfer performance in the range of 100 megabits/second to 1 gigabit/second. It’ll likely be at least couple of years before you start to see any widespread deployment of true 4G networks. And the higher performance range of these networks won’t be seen for some years after that.

In addition to considerably better performance, all the 4G technologoies—unlike today’s wireless networks, which are based on traditional circuit switched/packet switched technology—are packet switched only, making IP (Internet Protocol) an essential component to better deliver applications and services, just like the Web.

Through IP, carriers can directly address and route (and therefore support) a wider variety of devices, for example. It is also supposed streamline access to voice, data, streamed multimedia and other (some yet to be thought up) applications and services—in other words, to “anything, anytime, anywhere.”

Article courtesy of PDAStreet.com. James Alan Miller is Managing Editor at PDAStreet.com.

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