AT&T: Mobility Key to Retaining Small Biz

Mobility is now AT&T's key weapon in defending against the broad-scale attacks on its very large base of small business customers.

Like all former monopoly telcos, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) once was the dominant provider for small business customers in its local footprint. But for more than 10 years, CLECs have focused on SMBs and, more recently, cable operators are aggressively pursuing this market. (See Cablevision Launches SMB Tilt.)

But AT&T still has -- by its count -- 3 million small-business customers, counting wireline and wireless, and its strategy for keeping those customers is to offer them mobility services, in addition to -- or instead of -- traditional wireline offers, says Ebrahim Keshavarz, vice president of business development and strategy at AT&T.

"We have direct ties to these businesses, and we hear them say all the time that they want to go mobile," Keshavarz says.

AT&T's wireless retail stores are key centers for sales to SMBs, and AT&T is adding more services to what's available there. The company also has special loan programs for SMBs. (See AT&T Will Make SMB Wireless Loans and AT&T Pushes SMB Telepresence.)

Mobile penetration is higher in small businesses, which tend to be run by more "jack of all trades" types and personnel who need to be out selling for a business to thrive, he adds.

Last fall, AT&T launched an "All For Less" bundle that lets the smallest businesses -- those with 10 voice lines or fewer -- buy a bundle of services that feature wireless including smart phones and laptop cards, shared Web hosting and tech support, and a cloud-based data backup service, AT&T Tech Support 360 Back Up and Go. (See AT&T Wireless-Wireline Broadband Targets SMBs.)

That followed the launch of a broadband data bundle aimed at small businesses that combined 24Mbit/s wired Internet access (via the U-verse service) with mobile broadband via laptop cards, Wi-Fi access and the backup service.

Some products, such as a managed firewall product for greater security, were developed for larger businesses and then moved down market, but others, such as the data backup plan, were developed with the specific needs of small businesses in mind.

"Small business tends to be one-on-one with how they store data -- there's one PC, one laptop, one smart phone -- but with a strong and growing focus on mobility, they want all that integrated," Keshavarz says.

AT&T is also bulking up its wireline offerings. It recently added video services for small businesses -- although Keshavarz sees that as a niche within the market -- and will use Ethernet services to add speed and cloud-based offerings as well, but mobility will be its primary weapon. Some of the cloud offerings will target mobile apps such as fleet-tracking, while others will be hosted service plans for advanced voice services without the capital expense of the PBX. (See AT&T Extends U-Verse to Small Biz.)

Wireline speed could well become an issue -- cable companies that are targeting small businesses most often compare their cable modem services to AT&T's DSL offering, and find the latter lacking on speed.

Keshavarz sees small businesses wanting everything from 768Kbit/s DSL services to much higher-end T-1 offerings and a lot in between, but more importantly wanting a single provider to trust.

"The small business market is a very competitive space," he says. "But we've seen competitors come and go."

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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