iPhone-touting Americans are now able to connect to AT&T's network of 17,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for free - though since they'll have to manually connect and authenticate each time, they might prefer 3G.
UK iPhone users already have free access to The Cloud and BT Openzone spots, 9,500 of them, but in the US punters have been asked to pay for Wi-Fi - unless they've got DSL from AT&T too.
Wi-Fi is increasingly a bundled offering, given away free with DSL, mobile phone contracts or breakfast cereal, demonstrating the problems with a business model that was always dependent on network operators overcharging for their 3G connectivity. Wi-Fi might be faster, if there aren't too many other users nearby, but the backhaul from the local hotspot is often over a crowded DSL line, in contrast to 3G networks which are almost exclusively over leased-line connections.
Of course, the USA hasn't got the near-ubiquitous 3G coverage that living on a small island off the coast of France allows, so hotspots make slightly more sense, and you can't use (legitimate) VoIP over 3G either.
Not that connecting to an AT&T hotspot is as easy as Apple would have made it - customers have to manually enter their phone number, then click the link in a received text message, and repeat the process every 24 hours or when they change hotspots.
For most users 3G will remain the preferred option, so AT&T has little to lose through this offering, and if they can move a little traffic off their 3G network then that's all to the good. ®
Apple iPhone 3G review