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AT&T: iFriend or iFoe?

It started with a text message I received from AT&T last week. "Your Apple iPhone now has free AT&T Wi-Fi access at thousands of hotspots nationwide, including Starbucks."

The move seemed odd to me. How does AT&T benefit from giving away free data (off the 3G grid) at all of its hotspots, which not only include Starbucks, but a significant number of McDonalds, airports and hotels?

I put the question to my folks on Twitter and to some more via email. A few of you argued that AT&T had a longstanding deal with Starbucks and Apple to at some point allow free use at the coffee shops, in an effort to drum up new iTunes store downloads. (That turned out to be a rumor.) Others thought it had something to do with all the dropped calls on AT&T's 3G network. (Yes, calls drop all the time, but that doesn't have to do with the data network.)

Since that announcement, another piece of the data puzzle was leaked in the past few days: AT&T, like Comcast, may start to charge based on data use.

Here's what I've decided - and I'll ask for your thoughts, of course. It seems like data demands are taxing AT&T's infrastructure, and with so much usage, they just can't service the growing mobile data user base. It's not just iPhones on that network - AT&T offers a whole range of data-enabled phones. AT&T didn't plan far enough ahead. Or it did, and that plan included unhappy iPhone customers.

I've definitely had problems with slow data connectivity, even when I have full bars and am using 3G. Data works much better in my office, using our wireless network. But I didn't get the phone to use it in my office. I want high speed when I'm out, when I'm on the train commuting, when I'm roaming around other countries, when I'm working with our clients.

It's disheartening to know that our technology is being hampered by infrastructure that isn't growing as fast as demand. Especially with the launch of the Google Earth, urbanspoon and Where applications for the iPhone... We're in the thick of innovation and development. C'mon, AT&T. Don't let us down.

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