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AT&T Expands Wi-Fi Hotzones Trial

Ma Bell is beginning to look like Ma Wi-Fi as the company expands its Wi-Fi efforts beyond a Wi-Fi test site in Times Square. The company said on Monday that it has built out a second Wi-Fi hotzone pilot project in downtown Charlotte, NC, and plans to launch another in Chicago in the coming weeks.

The Charlotte outdoor site covers a large area around the NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza and covers travelers waiting to use the Lynx light rail in the area.

Initially off to a fast start a few years ago, Wi-Fi hotspots in municipalities have had a checkered past with some of the most ambitious projects -- in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Corpus Christi, etc. -- being dropped while smaller hotspots are proliferating in virtually all municipalities.

The new successful business model -- like AT&T's -- requires users to log onto proprietary networks usually using passwords of a supplier. AT&T said users can access "AT&T's Wi-Fi network with their Wi-Fi enabled smartphones, laptops, netbooks and other devices."

Wi-Fi also has the advantage of taking users off non-Wi-Fi 3G spectrum used by smartphones. That spectrum even in the new 700 MHz band is expected to become overcrowded as smartphones and other data-gobbling devices are increasingly used by consumers. AT&T has been particularly hard hit, due to the popularity of the iPhone, which operates solely on AT&T's network in the US. iPhone users have complained of dropped calls in high-usage areas.

"Wi-Fi plans a key role in our strategy to mobilize everything that's important to our customers - including entertainment, news, social networks and business apps," said Angie Wiskocil, senior vice president of AT&T Wi-Fi Services, in a statement. "With these pilot AT&T Wi-Fi hotzones, we're examining new ways to use a combination of our Wi-Fi and 3G networks to deliver the best possible mobile broadband experience."

AT&T said it handled 68.1 million Wi-Fi connections in the second quarter compared to just 15 million in the same quarter last year.