Verizon, AT&T Extend Free Wi-Fi

The free Wi-Fi craze continues this week with Verizon Wireless extending the service to some users – but not smartphone users, it must be noted. Meanwhile, AT&T Inc. will offer free Wi-Fi to all visitors at 11,000 of the more than 13,000 U.S. McDonalds’ locations, beginning in mid-January.

Verizon Wireless is adding on free access to Wi-Fi for those users signed up for its Mobile Broadband and Global Access mobile data plans for laptops and netbooks. The free access doesn’t apply to users of the Droid or other smartphones.

Verizon already offers free Wi-Fi to Verizon Communications’ residential Internet customers who have Internet plans up to 3mbps download or faster (that’s the Power and Turbo plans); and, for those that have FiOS Internet Faster and Fastest plans.

The company’s ILEC arm, Verizon Communications, is facing competition in some of its home markets in the Northeast from cablecos like Cablevision Corp. and Comcast Corp., which have rolled out Wi-Fi footprints as a churn reducer and pot-sweetener for triple-play customers. It’s working, too, with cablecos reporting big uptakes in its home broadband service since launching the Wi-Fi strategy.

Meanwhile, in the AT&T-McDonald’s deal, the burger chain’s visitors had been paying $2.95 for two hours of access. McDonald’s says it expects more visitors to spend more time at the restaurants now that they can use the Wi-Fi for free, presumably driving more sales of food and coffee.

AT&T already offers its wireline and wireless broadband customers free access to its public Wi-Fi hotspots at McDonald’s, Starbucks and other locations, helping to offload data usage from the cellular network (that’s a shout-out to the iPhone), and to extend the value of some of its U-Verse home broadband subscriptions a la the Cablevision and existing Verizon strategies.

Opening up access to the general public is a new level of free, but the move is not without precedent for the carrier. Over the summer, AT&T struck a similar deal with Barnes & Noble. While AT&T has provided hotspots at the bookseller since 2005, now it’s free to anyone who walks into the store. Shoppers can also opt-in to get coupons to the in-store café, notices on an author book signings or details on where to find a new book release in their favorite genre.

The bookstore is using the access as a way to promote its eBook offerings as well. All customers shopping in Barnes & Noble stores can now freely download and preview any of the more than 700,000 eBook titles with hundreds of thousands of public domain titles available from Google.

“This is a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read,” said Steve Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble.

In third quarter, AT&T said its customers made 25.4 million Wi-Fi connections, thanks in some part to a feature in the iPhone 3.0 that enables auto-authentication at AT&T’s 20,000 hotspots. That’s compared to 25.6 million Wi-Fi connections for all of 2009 to date, and the 20 million connections AT&T reported for all of 2008.

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