AT&T Can Save Their Network... With Wi-Fi?

AT&T's latest idea is actually kind of brilliant on multiple levels: totally free Wi-Fi in Times Square. And it could be how they save their network.

It's no coincidence that AT&T already runs the largest Wi-Fi network in the country—20,000 hotspots in all—providing free Wi-Fi (to AT&T customers) in the kinds of places that people like to hang out and gobble data on their phones: Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and McDonald's. The Times Square Wi-Fi project is a pilot program, and depending on the results, possibly the first of many dense, high-traffic urban areas AT&T blankets in Wi-Fi.

Upfront, it's good publicity, with AT&T scoring major brownie points from folks for providing a legitimately useful service for free in a perfect location: Times Square is highly visible, a perpetually throbbing, pulsing throng of humanity, largely wafting through like a concrete lazy river. And it's largely tourists, who you can imagine exclaiming "ooooooOOO! free internet!" as they glisten, unaccustomed to walking distances greater than the length of a parking lot, upon discovering AT&T's open Wi-Fi network in the north central section of Times Square, near 7th Avenue between 45th and 47th Street.

A huge mass of people. Well known landmark. Oh yes, and the AT&T service there is crap, as it is in many highly trafficked areas of New York.

Which brings us to the why: Because, instead of thousands and thousands of people simultaneously uploading their awesome photos or videos to Facebook or YouTube or wherever to share—gigs and gigs of data—over AT&T's bruised, congested cellular network, they can use free Wi-Fi, offloading traffic and reducing the strain on the network thousands of other people are trying to make phone calls over.

AT&T would be missing a huge opportunity if they failed to leverage Wi-Fi in a significant way, building their Wi-Fi network out to every huge, congested public space they can find. In New York, half of my calls fail in Union Square. Offloading traffic to a separate Wi-Fi network wouldn't completely solve the cell network crush in these superpacked areas, but it would seriously help, if these networks were promoted and maintained correctly. That is, people knew about them, and they were speedier than using the 3G network (since speed would be the incentive to use them). Their own numbers bear this out: AT&T served up 53.1 million Wi-Fi connections in the first three months of this year, over 500 percent growth from a year ago. Where would they rather have all that traffic? On the cell network, or on Wi-Fi?

True, Wi-Fi networks would introduce their own maintenance issues, but they would be cheaper and easier than constructing and tuning new cell towers, particularly in places that might already be stacked to the brim with towers, as many of these areas likely are. (The success of muni Wi-Fi in a few places suggests the economy of the idea.)

It's a pair of fabulous, depressing ironies: The way to save AT&T's network is by keeping us off of it. And the technology to save it is not some new R&D breakthrough, but a technology that even Grandma's got. [AT&T, Image via jliba/Flickr]