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AT&T powering up free WiFi hotspot in Times Square

AT&T will give New Yorkers fumbling around for decent 3G coverage in the crowded city a nice gift today. Engadget reports that AT&T is expected to announce their first free outdoor WiFi hotspot later today. The free connectivity will be available in the north part of Times Square, between 45th and 47th street, near 7th Ave. Users sporting a 3G or WiFi enabled device will be able to use the service free of charge, and in the case of 3G, will switch over automatically when in range.

AT&T's release of the iPhone two years ago is widely cited as the cause of many customer complaints over dropped calls and sub-standard 3G data speeds and reliability. At the CTIA Wireless trade conference in 2009, CTO John Donovan acknowledged that the complaints were being heard. The problem has only gotten worse for big-city dwellers since the release of the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Donovan noted the significant rise in data traffic since the advent of widely available 3G smartphones, but failed to actually admit that there was an issue in keeping up with customer demand. Since then, they have upgraded much of their network hardware to try and accommodate the steeply rising demand that doesn't seem to be tapering off.

Implementing WiFi hotspots to offload congested 3G traffic is something AT&T is optimistic about, according to CNet. Wireless technology has advanced to the point where the range and scalability of WiFi hotspots is almost as good as a cell tower anyway. Urban-scale wireless hotspots can cover as much as 2000 feet with the adoption of the 802.11n standard, and the speeds are desirable enough to make 3G customers want to switch to WiFi whenever possible.

While AT&T is hoping to solve some problems with WiFi, it's not a good time to be faltering on your data rates and reliability. As Sprint rolls out more and more 4G WiMax towers, and as T-Mobile prepares for their HSDPA+ upgrade, AT&T seems to still be lagging in the 3G world. WiFi may be a temporary fix, but they're going to need a serious upgrade in bandwidth to compete effectively with the other carriers.

Image courtesy of Google Maps

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