Friday, May 02, 2008

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Starbucks Rolling out Free Wi-Fi for IPhones, Slowly

iPhone users who need a speed boost over the EDGE connection find the phone's Wi-Fi functionality quite handy. The only...

Dan Moren,

Friday, May 02, 2008

iPhone users who need a speed boost over the EDGE connection find the phone's Wi-Fi functionality quite handy. The only problem is locating a hotspot to use it on. However, Starbucks and AT&T struck a deal earlier this year that will see the coffee retailer's Wi-Fi hotspots, currently served by T-Mobile, switched to the AT&T network. And that carries potential benefits for iPhone users.

Some iPhone users have reported that the newly launched AT&T hotspots are offering free Wi-Fi access to all iPhone users, as long as you have a valid iPhone phone number with the provider. Unfortunately, the situation is not quite as straightforward as one might hope.

I decided to take a little firsthand look, visiting four Starbucks in the Metro Boston area. I found only one offering free Wi-Fi for iPhones--the Davis Square, Somerville location nearest my home. The login screen accepted my iPhone's phone number without question and logged me in with no trouble.

However, of the three subsequent Starbucks I visited, two were still using T-Mobile's service to provide Wi-Fi access. The third, a Starbucks ensconced in a Barnes & Noble store in Boston's Prudential Center, had an AT&T hotspot available, but was not offering free Wi-Fi to iPhones.

Interestingly, of the two Starbucks still providing T-Mobile hotspots, both also had Wi-Fi networks named "attwifi" which currently pointed to T-Mobile's hotspot logon servers. That seems in keeping with AT&T's stated intentions of rolling out the service starting this spring. According to the company's initial joint press release with Starbucks, it plans to switch the coffee chain's hotspots over on a market-by-market basis, finishing up by the end of the year.

An AT&T spokesperson I spoke to by phone would not comment on the subject and Starbucks did not respond to a press inquiry via email. What little information you can find on AT&T's website--all gleaned from that initial press release--suggests that customers of AT&T's broadband and U-verse Internet customers will be able to use the Wi-Fi service for free, though AT&T promises to "soon extend the benefits of Wi-Fi at Starbucks to its wireless customers." Other users will have to pay AT&T's rates of US$3.99 for a two hour block, or $19.99 per month.

Contrast this with the situation in the United Kingdom, where mobile phone provider O2 has been offering free access to hot-spots in The Cloud network, of which there are 7,500 throughout Europe, to all iPhone subscribers. That may be a mere fraction of the 70,000 hotspots that AT&T boasts internationally, but it's certainly a far less ambiguous system.