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AT&T, Sprint pilot airport Wi-Fi venture

The two wireless communications giants announced a deal to offer each other's customers access to both companies' Wi-Fi networks at a handful of U.S. airports.

AT&T Wireless and Sprint on Monday announced a new Wi-Fi hot-spot roaming pact for several U.S. airports.

Under the deal, customers of each of the wireless service providers' Wi-Fi services will be allowed access to both companies' networks at Denver International, Kansas City International, Philadelphia International, Raleigh-Durham International and Salt Lake City International.

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While the agreement marks the first Wi-Fi roaming pact established between Sprint's PCS group and AT&T Wireless, both companies have been actively pursuing partnership agreements to expand the number of access points available to their customers, especially for people traveling by air. Wi-Fi networks provide wireless connectivity to the Internet, e-mail and corporate networks via mobile devices such as cell phones, pagers and laptop computers.

In February, AT&T Wireless announced a similar bandwidth exchange with rival T-Mobile for the Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco airports. Sprint most recently struck a deal with Wi-Fi specialists Concourse Communications Group to provide access to networks at airports in a number of markets, including Detroit, Minneapolis and New York.

According to Wes Dittmer, general manager of Wi-Fi services at Sprint, partnerships like the one with AT&T remain the most attractive option for vendors looking to increase wireless Internet availability in popular locations. Many well-traveled areas like airports allow only one Wi-Fi provider to set up a network on their premises.

"There's a real need for open roaming right now as each of these venue owners is picking only one Wi-Fi vendor, and the inability to provide services at someplace like an airport really shrinks the larger market opportunity," Dittmer said. "We're going to continue to aggressively pursue these kind of opportunities."

He said Sprint hopes to rapidly increase the reach of its Wi-Fi services through additional partnerships and network expansion. The company plans to grow its current total of 2,200 available hot spots to more than 10,000 access points this year alone. Because vendors are being forced to use each other's networks to establish coverage, pricing, rather than overall functionality, will become a significant differentiator.

"As awareness of availability grows with more roaming deals, pricing will become an important part of the bigger picture," Dittmer said. "Right now, people see any kind of access and they're willing to pay for it. But as the market matures, I think flat pricing plans and bundling of Wi-Fi will become popular."

Under the terms of the agreement, customers will be able to access both Sprint's and AT&T Wireless' Wi-Fi services using their existing user IDs and passwords. The two wireless carriers said they will complete network integration efforts and begin offering the roaming services to customers as soon as possible.

In a recent survey of U.S. cities that offer wireless Internet connectivity, the San Francisco Bay Area surpassed all other regions in terms of coverage. It was followed by the Portland, Ore.-Vancouver, Wash., area; Orange County, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Bergen, N.J.; Middlesex, N.J.; San Diego; and Denver.

Another study, published in February, indicated that the number of people seeking access through Wi-Fi hot spots globally is likely to triple this year, with total usage poised to rise to 30 million people, up from 9.3 million last year.