The telecom behemoth is also gigantic in giving away Wi-Fi to customers: AT&T's quarterly report on Wi-Fi usage finds the firm serving 121m sessions in the first six months of 2010; that compares to 86m sessions in all of 2009. Second quarter 2010 saw 68m sessions used, compared with 15m in the year-ago second quarter. Second quarter was also a 30-percent increase over first quarter.
That's great, but you'll note that the names McDonald's and Starbucks aren't mentioned anywhere in the press release. McDonald's and Starbucks represent about 19,000 of AT&T's "more than 20,000" locations.
In January, McDonald's opened its Wi-Fi network to everyone at no cost; previously, AT&T customers (wired, DSL, fiber, remote business, and laptop 3G) got access at no cost, and so did roaming network partners. One expects that McDonald's drove part (but not all) of the increase.
Likewise, on 1 July 2010, Starbucks shifted from its modestly complicated free two hours' offer, where you needed a Starbucks stored-value card, to unlimited free service for everyone. I expect we'll see a big jolt as a response, because it removes friction for short, casual use, as opposed to longer use in which anyone who figured it out would already have been using Starbucks' Wi-Fi at no cost.
You can't disregard other factors, however. AT&T continues to add wireless, laptop 3G, and fiber customers (although I believe DSL and landline markets are static or shrinking). Those users gain free service on subscribing. And existing users rely more on using free service as available.
The couple of million iPads that AT&T sold as part of the 3m+ worldwide totally likely are part of that jump in usage. A single iPad user could consume dozens of sessions a day, either on the AT&T free locations (with a Wi-Fi only unit or a 3G iPad without an active 3G subscription), or across AT&T's network with a 3G iPad and an active 3G data plan. (The active data plan gives you access to hotels, airports, and other otherwise for-fee locations, and some roaming locations on reciprocal networks.)
Finally, AT&T switch a few weeks ago from unlimited service plans to cheaper, limited plans for new customers or those that opt to switch away from unlimited will likely mean bargain hunters like yours truly will work harder to find free Wi-Fi instead of consuming expensive 3G juice.