AT&T Expands Free Wifi in San Francisco, New York

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In the next few days, AT&T will offer free wifi access for its subscribers who are shopping or dining at San Francisco’s waterfront Embarcadero Center, as well as for subscribers near Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

In addition, AT&T says it will expand the reach of its existing Times Square wifi hotspot — just in time for the massive crowds gathering to celebrate New Year’s Eve — to cover the north-central part of Times Square along 7th Avenue, east along 46th Street, and also along Broadway.

This announcement follows the company’s pilot program earlier this year — it deployed hotspots in Times Square, downtown Charlotte, NC, and Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood — to supplement mobile broadband in urban areas with consistently high mobile broadband use.

Popularity of Free Wifi Grows

The Dallas-based company, which competes against Verizon Wireless, operates more than 23,000 hotspots nationwide. In fact, AT&T handled 106.9 million wifi connections on its network in the third quarter of 2010, which far exceeds the 85.5 million connections the company made during the entire year in 2009.

Angie Wiskocil, senior vice president of AT&T’s WiFi Services, acknowledges that the company has recognized that wifi technology had numerous applications and far-reaching potential as millions of consumers adopt the use of wifi -enabled smartphones and other devices

“In addition to smartphones, we saw that more and more devices like tablets, e-readers, and netbooks were becoming wifi-enabled and realized that wifi would play a major part in our ability to mobilize everything for our customers,” says Wiskocil.

But privacy issues abound, as many smartphones support “auto-authentication” in hotspots. For example, auto-authentication is what allows iPhone users to seamlessly switch from AT&T’s 3G network to a wifi hotspot without being prompted, but it could also lead users to connect with a hacker or other form of privacy violation.

One important privacy step is to not check financial information (i.e., your bank account balance) or other personal information in public hotspots. Another key protection is to keep your smartphone password-protected.

Some analysts, surprisingly, say the dangers of being hacked are exaggerated.

Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, told the ECommerce Times, “Nothing’s hack-proof these days. That’s one of the dangers of doing business.”

Meanwhile, an AT&T spokesperson responded that the company has kept online security a “top priority” and that its “wifi service supports virtual private networking and personal firewalls.”

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi’s manager of digital content strategy.