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From smart cities to connected pallets as a service

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AT&T no longer needs to push the idea of the internet of things. Chris Penrose, president of IoT Solutions at AT&T, tells Alan Burkitt-Gray that enterprises are coming to it with ideas for services they want – including connected pallets.Healthcare, autonomous vehicles and smart cities are among the emerging applications for the internet of things (IoT) that Chris Penrose of AT&T finds most exciting. AT&T is working with organisations in all of those sectors to develop applications and test use cases. Penrose, who is president of IoT solutions at AT&T, says that people throughout industry now know what IoT is. “Five years ago we were out there pushing the vision, and we were trying to get those meetings to talk about the concept,” he says.

AT&T has helped educate the market. “We have created what we call the AT&T Foundries, innovation centres all over the world to help people get from idea to implementation. We created an IoT-specific foundry three years ago.” That education has worked. Now “we have people coming to us and saying they have a device and can we help them connect”. In other words, they know about the IoT and they want to use it. To help the process, the company has produced what Penrose calls “IoT in a box” – an IoT starter kit, that can work anywhere in the world, that includes connectivity, platforms, sensors and the rest. “We are really trying to make sure we put tools out there. They can get up and running and hopefully launch within a few days.”

Global Telecoms Business was interviewing Penrose on stage at a forum in Barcelona on operations transformation – sponsored by Huawei – at this year’s Mobile World Congress. “We’ve also created some vertical-specific foundries. In the past year, we set up the AT&T healthcare foundry in Houston, Texas, in one of the largest medical centres in the world. We went there because they already had innovators coming in to create new healthcare solutions. We wanted to figure out how we could help them get their ideas onto our networks.” What other potential IoT applications does he get excited about? The connected car is one. “We are on a much faster journey to autonomous cars that we ever imagined,” says Penrose. “This idea of saving lives is truly compelling.”

The company has invested in proving grounds in the US where car makers can come and test their solutions, using all varieties of radio access, from 5G down to short-range, low-power solutions, “to be able to see how it works together”, he says. “It’s not just vehicle to vehicle but vehicle to infrastructure and vehicle to pedestrian.” Another area is smart cities. “We’ve taken a different approach: we’ve identified spotlight cities around the US – cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. We’re working with the mayors and identifying the top use cases in those cities.” AT&T is looking at areas such a traffic management, parking, waste collection, safety and emergency response. “We want to show them how they can help make their city the very best in class,” says Penrose.

City operations centres

One idea is a smart cities network operations centre, so that city staff can see how the actual solutions are performing. “The mayor of Atlanta wants to take that dashboard out to the citizens so they can see in real time,” says Penrose. What are the big challenges with IoT? “What are you really trying to solve?” asks Penrose. “How can this connectivity bring new capability sets that we didn’t have before?” So AT&T focuses “on making sure we are really clear on improving operations, driving efficiency, saving time, or maybe generating new revenue streams”, he says. “We are vertically structured, because it is important to understand each and every business out there, and understand how they’re driving their businesses and how you can help them win.”

Security is a major concern, he admits, especially when applications are scaled for worldwide services, “because there is a big trend to globalisation and companies would like to deploy solutions – but they don’t want to have to talk to every single carrier around the world. They ask us how we can help them to make that happen.” Is this a realistic worry, or is it a little overblown? “No, it’s not overblown,” says Penrose. “It’s critically important. You really need to be designing these IT solutions with security in mind, and no one person can do it all.” AT&T takes what he calls “a four-pronged approach” to security. What do you need to do with the device? What do you need to do with the network layer as information is going back and forward? What do you need to do about the application that is being run on top of this? And how can AT&T provide information about real-time threat detection?

AT&T is in a special position, says Penrose, who has worked for the company for 27 years – since it was, in his words, a plain old telephone company. “How can we, as a telephone company, as an entertainment company, how can we really bring a lot of the capabilities we’ve got around the traffic that we see on the network?” Because “70% of the world’s traffic touches AT&T’s network in some fashion”, the company has special insights about the threats, he says.

Driving security solutions

It’s working with a number of other companies in a security consortium, that is “looking end-to-end at IoT and asking where the threats are and how we can help drive security solutions”. He explains: “No one company can do it all. We’re very focused on making sure we’re investing heavily and hopefully take some of the concern out.” So far telecoms operators such as AT&T have played a major role in kick-starting IoT, but do they have a special role, or is there going to be a leakage of these skills to systems integrators and the enterprises – car companies, aircraft companies, makers of construction equipment – that will be the ultimate users of the IoT?

“At the end of the day it depends on the company,” says Penrose. “We can provide connectivity and that we can do really well. We’re happy if somebody has got everything they need and they just need the connectivity – and we’re happy to provide that.” But he is seeing systems integrators becoming instrumental in the market “because they are helping businesses create new processes and redesign the way they’re doing things”, he says. AT&T is happy to facilitate relationships with the cloud companies such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft where the data from IoT services is being stored. “If you want to go into the Microsoft Azure cloud we can enable you to make that happen.” AT&T’s IoT developer kits have links into those platforms, he then adds.

“In this space the opportunities are limitless and we’ve found that by working in partnership with companies across the ecosystems we get the best traction and get things to market much more quickly.” He adds: “Candidly, we want to make it easy for people to take their idea and get it to market, no matter what size they are, anywhere in the world.” AT&T was one of the pioneers of the global SIM, working with the GSMA on the standardisation. “The goal is to have a single interface that will allow companies to be able to deploy a solution all over the world.” This offers “permanent roaming”, where it’s allowed by the local regulator. In other words, a device will ship into a country with an AT&T SIM that will roam onto the best local network.

“We have set up IoT relationships with about 600 carriers in the world, multiple carriers in each country, to facilitate the delivery of IoT solutions. It really simplifies the ability for the solutions to be deployed. We work closely with our carrier partners all over the world on the best way to make it easy for our customers to deploy those mobile solutions.” And what’s the next big move in IoT? It’s a variant of LTE called LTE-M, says Penrose, a licensed low-power technology, approved by 3GPP, the world’s mobile standards organisation. “We’ve been very vocal.” LTE-M will give deeper coverage into buildings, and basements, “where you haven’t been able to reach with traditional cell signals”. It also offers much longer battery life, “from the days you get with a smartphone up to 10 years”. LTE-M terminals will be small, so will be wearable. A fourth aim is to drive down the cost per connection.

Thanks to this, “we’re beginning to see an explosion of applications for IoT,” says Penrose. For example? Er, pallets, those wooden platforms that are used to stack and move packs of goods in transit. They usually end up stacked unwanted in delivery yards and warehouses. Connected pallets will help keep track of the goods on top, but it will also create a new business model, he smiles: pallets as a service. {]

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