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AT&T expands free Wi-Fi hot zone trial

Company is launching a second free Wi-Fi hot zone--this one in downtown Charlotte, N.C.--to help alleviate network congestion.

AT&T has added another city to its free public Wi-Fi hot spot initiative to help alleviate network congestion.

The company announced Monday that Charlotte, N.C., will be the second city added to its pilot program, which offers free Wi-Fi to customers in what it calls Wi-Fi hot zones, or large sections of cities. The large outdoor Wi-Fi hot zone in Charlotte offers Wi-Fi coverage from South Brevard Street around the NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza to East Trade Street. It also offers customers waiting to use the nearby Lynx light rail free Wi-Fi.

In May, AT&T set up a free Wi-Fi hot zone in New York City's Times Square.

AT&T wireless and broadband customers using smartphones, laptops, and other Wi-Fi enabled devices will get access to free Wi-Fi in the hot zones. The carriers said it's setting up Wi-Fi hot zones in places where it sees consistently high 3G wireless usage. The hot zones are meant to offload some of this traffic from the AT&T cellular network. AT&T said in a press release that usage in the Times Square hot zone has been higher than expected. AT&T plans to further expand the pilot project with the launch of a third AT&T Wi-Fi hot zone in Chicago in the coming weeks.

"Our first AT&T Wi-Fi hot zone in New York City has received praise from our customers, and we're excited to introduce this Wi-Fi solution in Charlotte," Angie Wiskocil, senior vice president of AT&T's Wi-Fi services, said in a statement.

AT&T is using the hot zone program to see how Wi-Fi can help relieve wireless data congestion on AT&T's network. Customers with Wi-Fi-enabled devices will connect to the Wi-Fi network instead of AT&T's 3G network to access the Internet or Web-based applications.

AT&T, the exclusive carrier in the U.S. for the iPhone, has been criticized for not keeping up with demand for data services on its network. The company has reported that due to new devices like the iPhone, it's seen mobile data traffic grow on its network 5,000 percent in three years. The extra traffic, particularly in densely populated cities, such as New York and San Francisco, has caused many consumers to complain about dropped calls and slow Net access.

AT&T has been investing in upgrades to its cellular network, but the company said it also sees Wi-Fi as an important part of the solution. The company currently has more than 20,000 Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the country. AT&T hopes that offering free Wi-Fi to its wireless broadband customers will encourage them to use Wi-Fi when available instead of the 3G cellular network.

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