AT&T dangles free WiFi carrot in front of iPhone users (again)

Is there some serious internal conflict going on at AT&T? The company keeps dangling the prospect of offering its iPhone users free WiFi access at its 17,000 hotspots only to yank it back again. Last week, headlines were buzzing about the the fact that the company posted a Web page promoting free WiFi access for iPhone users at its hotspots. By the end of the week, the Web page was pulled, and AT&T media relations folks said it was a mistake. They won't provide any reason for the snafu or even whether the company will be offering such a service in the future.

Here's what the notice said on the company's Web site before it was pulled. "AT&T knows WiFi is hot, and free WiFi even hotter, which is why we are proud to offer iPhone customers free access to the nation's largest WiFi hotspot network with more than 17,000 hotspots, including Starbucks. Now users can relax and access music, email, and Web browsing services with their favorite blend in hand from the comfort of their favorite location."

The strange thing is that this isn't the first time AT&T launched such an offering and then pulled it back. Back in May, just hours after posting information that told iPhone users they would receive free access to AT&T's public WiFi hotspots, the company pulled all references to the service from its website. People were actually using the free service for a while before it went dark.

This latest snafu has to be an embarrassment for the company. News outlets are skewering AT&T for its handling of the situation. And rightly so since the company puts even more confusion in the air by saying no comment or even acknowledging that a plan is in the works. And it's certainly hard to believe the same mistake could be made twice, but maybe there continues to be some major internal struggle with those who still believe that WiFi could cannibalize the company's 3G business. Rogers in Canada, which has been the stingiest among the world's operators when it comes to its data pricing plans for the iPhone 3G and thereby raising the ire of thousands of Canadians, even offers free WiFi to its iPhone customers.

On another note, entities concerned about the FCC's potential approval of white-space devices, those who use wireless microphones, are busy inviting the agency to various events to make sure the devices don't interfere with their operations. Hey, if the FCC plays its cards right, folks working at the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) could score some nice freebies to some prime events around the country.

The latest invitation came from the Grammy Awards organization (also known as the Recording Academy), which invited the OET to test for interference at an "entertainment venue." So it wants to help coordinate an FCC visit to the Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago on Aug. 1, according to the letter it sent to the FCC. In June, ESPN and the NFL invited the FCC to field test white-space devices under "real world" conditions during the 2008-2009 football season. They further offered to hold testing at the Baltimore Raven's M&T Bank Stadium and the Washington Redskin's FedExField in Landover, Md., which are close to the FCC's headquarters.

Right now the FCC is field testing prototype white-space devices in residential areas and at least one sport's venue. Will the results be enough to allay the concerns of those entities who are worried about white-space interference with wireless microphones? Or will the FCC have to take these folks up on their offer? It will be interesting to see how far the FCC will be willing to go to make opponents of white-space operations, such as the National Association of Broadcasters, feel better. --Lynnette

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