DALLAS — AT&T hosted trade journalists last week at its headquarters in downtown Dallas to meet with some of the company’s top execs. On its posh third floor, in a room with a conference space so big that each chair had a microphone so we could hear other, reporters got to ask questions of the company’s new chief technology officer, the head of its consumer business and FirstNet leaders, among others. Here are the top seven takeaways from the conferences.
1 – AT&T’s 5G SA core is being distributed nationwide
Jeremy Legg, AT&T’s chief technology officer, said historically the wired networks of copper and fiber were operated separately from the wireless network, but AT&T is converging wired and wireless in municipalities across the country. And it’s also in the process of deploying its 5G standalone core. Unlike previous generations of wireless core technology, AT&T is going to distribute the core software at sites around the country. “We want to federate where those cores sit,” said Legg. “Cores have historically only been in a very few locations. We’re trying to put them in a lot more locations.”
He said this is important for voice applications, where it’s nice to keep calls geographically close. And it could be really important in the future for uses such as autonomous cars. The company isn’t quantifying how many locations it might ultimately put 5G SA core software. “It’s really a function of what the demand curve looks like,” said Legg. “We could put a core in 1,000 edges.”
The company has thousands of central offices all around the country. A select number of these central offices are already running its 5G SA core software.
2 – The AT&T Integrated Cloud saves tons of space
AT&T Labs was a forerunner in the software-defined networking movement. It built the AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC), which is now running the company’s network functions. AT&T gave a tour of its central office in Dallas where reporters got to see the entire evolution of central office technology. First, we saw the old copper lines in the basement running out to the street through a manhole. And then we saw the migration of technology from copper to fiber and from old-fashioned telco switches to proprietary black boxes from vendors, which run the switching function.
Finally, we saw the location of the AIC servers. These are kept in a highly air-conditioned space, which is almost deafeningly loud from all the fans. The AIC equipment is highly compact compared to the old switching gear. As a side note, Chris Sambar, AT&T’s executive vice president for Network, said the company spends “well over a billion dollars per year on power.”
Sambar described how AT&T had moved from proprietary equipment for its central offices to off-the-shelf servers that run networking software, which AT&T Labs developed. AT&T has since sold this software to Microsoft, which is free to resell it to other telcos around the world.
For its part, AT&T still keeps all its network functions on its own premises at central offices, running with its version of its network software. The company has a few hundred of these AIC cloud pods around the country.
Sambar said, “Now we have this disaggregated architecture where we can control everything in the box. There’s a lot more flexibility in the network to mix and match. And we continue to make iterations on top.
AT&T uses public cloud providers for its less-sensitive storage and compute functions.
3 – AT&T is keeping an eye on Verizon’s Concierge Service
T-Mobile has been charging customers a $35 Assisted Support charge for new account signups. And Verizon is testing a Concierge Service, which would cost customers $30 or $35 for higher levels of assistance when setting up their new phones. Asked if AT&T would follow the trend of charging customers for phone set-up and provisioning, Jen Robertson, executive vice president and general manager of AT&T’s Mass Markets, which covers the consumer phone business, declined to comment. She did say that AT&T will be watching what Verizon does with its Concierge Service.
AT&T already has a program called “Right to You” where customers can have their new phone delivered and then work with a customer service rep to get the device set up. Currently, it’s only available in select zip codes. “We’re testing several models as we go through it,” said Robertson.
4 – Hurricane Ian proves the value of amphibious equipment
Scott Agnew, assistant vice president for AT&T’s FirstNet, talked about the real-world emergency of Hurricane Ian in Florida.
Agnew said FirstNet had 150 individuals staged and ready to go in advance of the hurricane. FirstNet has a variety of emergency vehicles and first responder equipment. One thing that became relevant was its amphibious units. First responders could not initially get to Sanibel Island with their vehicles because the causeway collapsed. But the amphibious units were able to bring support and connectivity to the island. There are three cell sites on Sanibel Island and as of last Friday, two of them had been restored. Agnew said the experience on Sanibel “proved amphibious vehicles.”
5 – AT&T believes in climate change
AT&T is sometimes in the news for its support of political leaders, both Republican and Democrat. So, it’s not clear whether company leadership has a partisan preference or just likes to hedge its bets. But one thing is clear – AT&T believes the climate is changing, and it’s trying to reduce its carbon footprint.
Shannon Carroll, AT&T’s assistant vice president of Corporate Sustainability, said the company is driving its operations to net-zero as much as possible through renewable energy, a low-emissions fleet and energy efficiency. It has contracts that will bring its energy mix to more than 35% renewables. But the company doesn’t have a goal for 100% renewable energy because Carroll said it’s just not feasible right now. With the rise in energy costs, many renewable companies are swamped with work, and deals with them are not available. AT&T is pursuing renewables development “because utilities aren’t,” said Carroll.
The company has also integrated climate data into its network planning tools. Gordon Mansfield, vice president of Global Technology Planning, said, “It’s important for us to design our networks with resiliency in mind. We have a climate change tool that we developed with ArgusLab. We actually have our own weather department. Having those assets on staff allows us to plan.”
6 – AT&T is keeping an eye on companies like Helium Mobile
Joe Mosele, vice president for Mobility, IoT and 5G, said, AT&T is the leader in IoT in the U.S., based on the number of its IoT connections. It has 95.9 million connected devices and more than 53.3 million connected cars on the AT&T network.
China is the IoT leader in the world.
Asked if AT&T is interested in distributed wireless networks from the likes of Helium Mobile, Jason Inskeep, assistant vice president for private cellular, MEC and edge, said “Our teams are looking at it.”
7 – AT&T gives away Dell computers
A team at AT&T led by Mylanyna Albright, assistant vice president of Citizenship & Sustainability, focuses on helping children gain access to computers and the internet. It’s in the process of creating AT&T Connected Learning Centers. “We couldn’t afford to take fiber to everyone’s house,” said Albright. “The next best thing was at community centers. We’re providing three years of fiber, three years of Wi-Fi and Dell computers.” The group already has learning centers in several states and is planning to have 20 by the end of this year. Most of the learning centers are in places where AT&T has fiber. In addition to setting up learning centers with computers and internet connections, AT&T is also giving refurbished laptops to kids.