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AT&T's Smart City Ambitions Take RootAT&T's Smart City Ambitions Take Root

It often pays to get in on the ground floor.

Mari Silbey

January 23, 2018

7 Min Read
AT&T's Smart City Ambitions Take Root

When AT&T started working with smart cities more than two years ago, the movement was still a mix of patchy public WiFi deployments and the occasional connected streetlight or trash bin. But since that time, the nation's collective vision of a smart city has started to solidify, and AT&T has settled on a few successful strategies for getting involved in deployments early and then spreading outward as opportunity allows.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the smart city. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and others began to recognize the advantage of being first to arrive.

"About two and a half years ago we stood the smart cities business up for AT&T, and one of the first things I did was approach Mayor [Kasim] Reed and Samir Saini, the CIO from the city of Atlanta, and presented to them an opportunity to partner with us to create what we were calling a spotlight city," said AT&T General Manager Michael Zeto recently in a panel discussion on smart city ecosystems.

The goal in those early days, Zeto continued, was to help cities break down procurement silos and look at solution sets rather than point solutions. After that, AT&T would work to implement smart city technologies in a small area, "take the key learnings, go and drive awareness with the city council and with citizens and the ecosystem there, and then be able to eventually develop a funding model."

Figure 1: AT&T image of Atlanta as a smart city. AT&T image of Atlanta as a smart city.

No city is the same as another, so it doesn't pay for a company to build a one-size-fits-all approach for smart city deployment. However, it does pay to get to the discussion table early and become the lead partner and integrator as a city's plan for a connected future begins to materialize.

"I think that [cities] are looking -- because it is a complex situation -- they're wanting people to work with where they can pull together the different pieces and really be able to stich it together and make it all work," explained AT&T President of IoT Solutions Chris Penrose in a later interview with Light Reading. (See more of that interview here: How Connected Cars Are Helping to Drive Smart City Agendas.)

And there is evidence that Penrose is right. Increasingly different companies are adopting select communities to kick off local, long-term smart city strategies. AT&T, for example, has teamed up with Atlanta, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has adopted Las Vegas and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has a long-term investment deal in place with Boston. (See Verizon Takes 'One Fiber' to More Cities and Sin City Aims to Be the Next Tech Hub.)

In each case, the company has formed a relationship with its respective city with the potential for multiple projects extending from initial pilot deployments. That doesn't mean that other vendors and network operators are out of the picture, but it does give first-mover advantage to the solution providers who are already at the table helping to design the next phase of technology rollouts.

Learn more about the role of communications networks in smart cities at Light Reading's new breakfast event – Smart Cities, Dumb Pipes. Featuring an all-star line-up of experts, the event will be hosted at Smart Cities Connect 2018 in Kansas City on March 28. Admission is free for all conference attendees! "We did act almost as a big SI [system integrator] if you will," said Zeto about AT&T's work in Atlanta, adding that the operator learned over time when it needed to bring in new partners on any given project. And he continued, "There's a large opportunity there for companies like AT&T to partner with the cities and develop strategic relationships and bring in the other ecosystem players to really bring value to the citizens." Penrose later clarified that AT&T "can play the role of prime, but we're also totally fine working with others," depending on what a city's needs are. What seems to be happening, however, is that a universe of smart city solution providers is being whittled down to a smaller subset of companies that can prove their ability to support smart city projects on a large scale. "I do think that a lot of it is still being tested, trialed, and you've got places that have picked some groups to run with early," said Penrose, "but ultimately I think everybody's going to get to a point where there's a handful of solutions and there's a handful of people that they think are doing this best in class, and we're hoping to be one of those folks." Next page: Streetside with AT&T Streetside with AT&T
So what exactly does AT&T have going for it in the smart city race? At the heart of the company's portfolio is its AT&T Smart Cities Digital Infrastructure solution. Nearly a year ago the telco partnered with Current, a division of General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), to sell self-contained sensor nodes that attach to a city's light poles. Penrose calls the solution a smartphone for the city, a concept that's also been tied to smart kiosks like the ones in New York City's LinkNYC deployment. (See Civiq Smartscapes Builds 'iPhone for the Street'.) Once the sensor nodes are in place, AT&T has a platform it can build on; one that enables local connectivity and has the potential to collect mounds of data for use in improving regional traffic, public safety, environmental conditions and more. Cities can deploy the nodes in a number of different ways, and they can start small with the ability to add expand as needed. Figure 2: Rendering by AT&T and Current of their smart lighting and intelligent node solution. Rendering by AT&T and Current of their smart lighting and intelligent node solution. "I think what we've tried to do is be able to bring together a framework that we can bring to the cities and sit down and have that conversation," said Penrose, "and depending upon where they're at in the journey, we can help them get started with some proofs of concept or we can actually give them ways to actually scale things in a major way." Importantly, AT&T is also not limiting itself to one type of network connectivity. The last mile can be wired or wireless, and even connected via low-power IoT networks. "We take a multi-network approach where we've got wireline assets, we've got WiFi assets, we've got cellular assets," Penrose pointed out. "We have a brand new network that we just rolled out called LTE-M, which is our low-power network, and so what we can do is stitch together the fabric of networks that a city is going to need depending upon the solutions that they want to actually be able to provide." AT&T has other solutions too, including a new one for monitoring physical infrastructure like roads and railways, and technology for energy management and solar power. The operator has also partnered with several other large companies in order to build out solutions that require specialized expertise. Aside from GE, those partners include Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and more -- a who's who in the smart city space. And then there's AT&T's political angle. As a long-time supplier to governments, and a lobbying force at all levels, AT&T has the political connections to open new business discussions and steer new projects as money becomes available. "Every state has a state president [within AT&T], and we're very tight with all the political officials," commented Penrose. "We've become a trusted advisor to them and really are able to bring in a number of different relationships to help pull together a full package for them." For better or worse, that political juice could go a long way. And combined with AT&T's other assets and partnerships, those connections give the telco a major competitive advantage -- one that could prove crucial as the operator continues to pursue future smart cities across the country and even the world. — Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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