I am SO there! AT&T offers free Wi-Fi at Starbucks

June 3, 2008 2:27 PM PDT

AT&T’s free Wi-Fi access for Starbucks coffee shops is finally here.

Starbucks on 29th Street and Park Aveneue in New York City.

Starting Tuesday, Starbucks coffee shops across the country are offering two hours of free Wi-Fi Internet service through AT&T. In order to get the free service, customers must buy a Starbucks Reward Card with a minimum of $5 credit on it. Customers also must sign up for the free Wi-Fi online at Starbucks.com. To keep the card active, customers must also use their Starbucks Card at least once a month.

The free service is only for two hours and must be used in a single session. New members will also get a voucher for a free drink.

The free AT&T Wi-Fi offer comes as Starbucks phases out a seven-year relationship with T-Mobile, which had provided its customers Wi-Fi under hourly and daily rates. While existing T-Mobile account holders will still be able to sign on and use the T-Mobile service, AT&T has officially taken over all of Starbucks’ hot spots.

Free Wi-Fi in Starbucks is part of AT&T’s broader effort to give customers more choices using Wi-Fi. The company is also enabling its broadband and wireless data users [this is me] to get free Wi-Fi at any of AT&T’s 17,000 hot spots around the country. Under this program, subscribers aren’t limited to the amount of time they can access a hot spot. These AT&T broadband and wireless data subscribers can also use their existing AT&T account information in the Starbucks hot spots. But unlike non-AT&T customers, they don’t need to purchase a Starbucks Rewards Card and there is no time limit.

“Our philosophy is that we want broadband to be on demand,” said Mike Woodward, vice president of business mobility for AT&T. “People don’t think that they want to connect to the network using DSL or 3G cellular or Wi-Fi. And now we’ve lined up our assets to deliver all these various flavors of broadband.”

The free service is part of Starbucks Reward card program, which started in April. Under this program, members can get free syrup and milk options with drinks as well as free refills of hot and iced brewed coffees. They can also get a free drink when they buy a pound of coffee beans. And now they’ll be getting two hours of free Wi-Fi Internet connectivity courtesy of AT&T.

Adding free Wi-Fi to the mix is supposed to help lure customers, who may be forgoing their tall [tall? get real!] lattes in an effort to save money. While the idea is certainly a nice one, it seems like Starbucks and AT&T haven’t done a great job promoting it.

I went to the Starbucks right around the corner from the CNET office on 29th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan on Tuesday expecting to see a packed house of free Internet users. But instead, the patrons I spoke to sipping coffee and tapping away on their laptops weren’t even aware that they could get free Wi-Fi.

Even the Starbucks employees didn’t know or understand the ins and outs of the new program. When I asked how I could get online, the Starbucks employee who was helping me said she thought I could just sign up for the free service on the Starbucks Web site from a connection at my home or office. She wasn’t aware that I needed a Starbucks Reward Card. And she was unaware of the two-hour time limit on the free service. Still, as an employee who was given access to the service with no strings attached, she said she is excited to have free Internet access. Previously, Starbucks employees were only offered discounted T-Mobile access.

“The discounted service just wasn’t worth it to me,” she said. “And it certainly is about time that we offered free Wi-Fi. Every other cafe and coffee shop around here seems to offer complimentary Internet.”

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