You can call AT&T (NYSE: T) many things, but "stale" isn't one of them.

The much-maligned wireless network of the nation's second-largest mobile carrier is under construction as Ma Bell works on her next-generation LTE rollout. Until then, the company is plugging some leaks in its proverbial dam by deploying inventive workarounds.

This week, AT&T proudly announced that it is expanding the use of Wi-Fi "hotzones" in a selection of densely populated areas, thus giving data-hungry users in a crowd a way to reach the Internet without connecting to its 3G towers. You don't even have to find the nearest locations for AT&T Wi-Fi partners like Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) or McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) to get your fill, because these zones blanket large swaths of real estate with their high-speed radio waves.

AT&T says that its pilot programs have "received great customer response," and I suppose we can assume that the solution will be around for a while if this next wave of implementation proves equally popular. Why pour money into expensive 3G and 4G technologies if cheap-and-cheerful Wi-Fi jury-rigging is good enough? If this solution becomes permanent, restaurants and coffee shops might eventually lose the customer-magnet advantages of having their own Wi-Fi hookups.

If your carrier of choice is Verizon (NYSE: VZ), Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S), or any other non-AT&T provider, you're not getting a free ride in Times Square or downtown San Francisco courtesy of AT&T. The connectivity will only be available to customers with "qualifying" AT&T plans.

Verizon does have its own network of Wi-Fi hotspots, though access to that service is included with DSL and FiOS Internet plans rather than with wireless access subscriptions, thus limiting the addressable market something fierce. T-Mobile wants you to pay for its hotspot plan, while Sprint prefers to sell you a personal, portable hotspot that connects to its 4G networks.

Is this a smart, face-saving move by AT&T, or just a vain attempt to plug leaks in the Hoover Dam with chewing gum and duct tape? Discuss in the comments below.

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