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As one of the world's oldest and largest telecommunications companies, AT&T has its sights set on the IoT market, with hopes of capitalizing on its strong cellular background and offering a full-blown IoT portfolio. Despite AT&T's pedigree, industry analysts point out where they think AT&T is lagging -- both in terms of its IoT platform's capabilities and the company's ability to differentiate itself from other players in the market.
Simply put, AT&T's IoT strategy is to connect as many devices as possible as securely and as effectively as possible and do it in a way that brings business value to its customers. In practice, the AT&T IoT platform is split into two categories -- the development platform and the management platform -- so its customers can do things quickly and efficiently, according to Shiraz Hasan, vice president of AT&T IoT product management.
More specifically, the management platform, AT&T Control Center, allows companies to deploy, manage and monetize their connected devices and IoT products across the globe in near real time. Companies large and small can manage devices, usage and billing with the API-friendly platform, powered by Cisco Jasper, that allows customers to take data in the Jasper platform and ingest it into business apps, Hasan said.
On the development side of the AT&T IoT strategy is Flow, a platform that allows customers to design, build and deploy IoT applications in a matter of minutes. AT&T Flow is built on products the company has had in the market for a number of years, including its M2X Data Service, a cloud-based, fully managed, time-series data source service for network-connected devices. This carrier-grade cloud-based data store makes it easier for organizations to collect, analyze and share time-series data from IoT systems, according to AT&T. The company also offers AT&T Flow Designer to help customers prototype IoT applications without having to write a lot of code, Hasan said, giving a visualization layer to users.
AT&T IoT vs. other platforms
While AT&T points to its IoT differentiators, the AT&T IoT strategy is much like those of other mobile operators: predominantly device connectivity-centric and management-centric, according to Christian Renaud, research director of IoT at 451 Research.
The game plans of Telefonica, Vodafone, Sprint and T-Mobile have all been extensions of what used to be machine-to-machine (M2M) strategies -- cellular connectivity for semitrucks, trailers and expensive moving assets, Renaud said, adding that mobile operators are often focused on trying to get as many cellular-connected devices as possible -- which is just an extension of their handset businesses -- and then looking at what else needs cellular connectivity.
AT&T's IoT platform is device connectivity management and back-end integration into cloud services like Azure, AWS, IBM, Google and then some APIs, so the company can get to vertical market-specific applications, Renaud said.
But not all IoT platforms are centered around device connectivity and device management, he noted, nor do they have to be. For example, General Electric Predix is more interested in the analytics side, while Salesforce is more interested in the business process automation side.
And AT&T competitor Verizon is doing applications and analytics around trucking and fleet telematics, he said, whereas AT&T is predominantly preoccupied with device connectivity management and the analytics of those connections.
How AT&T's IoT strategy fits into the market
AT&T's Hasan maintained the company is taking a horizontal approach to IoT, rather than focusing on a specific vertical, which sets AT&T apart from other mobile operators.
"We're able to use best practices from different verticals and apply them in this evolving space," Hasan said. "We haven't gone deep, and that's purposeful so far from a strategy perspective. Down the road, we might go do that."
Customers like AT&T's open-nature approach, Hasan added. It isn't trying to lock customers into a proprietary technology that binds them to the company for the long term. In addition, he noted, the platform is ecosystem-friendly. If a customer uses a different cloud provider, such as AWS, Azure or IBM, the AT&T IoT platform can inject the data directly into it.
Hasan pointed to AT&T's rich cellular history as another way in which the company has a leg up on the competition.
"We know how cellular networks work, and we know how devices behave on cellular networks," he said. "We have a very good perspective on the type of overhead a cellular communication can create, and we can design the platforms with those elasticities in mind."
There's a perception that, as a carrier, as Renaud mentioned, AT&T would want to put as much traffic on the network as possible, but that's not the case with AT&T, Hasan said.
When it comes to IoT, Hasan maintained that AT&T is about designing platforms by building intelligence at the edge as part of its deployments with its customers.
Eric Goodness, Gartner research vice president, equated AT&T's IoT strategy to those of other communications and telecom service providers, however.
"AT&T is throwing cellular connections at anything that fogs the mirror and hoping it can sweat out the good [profit] margins in that connectivity business for as long as it can, which it has," Goodness said.
AT&T has been able to grow its installed base of IoT M2M-centric connections and realize some really good margins over the past five years, but the market is getting more challenging, he said. "That's why you're starting to hear more CSPs (communication service providers), such as AT&T, Verizon or Vodafone, start to pivot and talk about how they're a broader IoT play, which they're not."
Connecting devices isn't as big of a challenge as it was before, Hasan noted, adding that knowing how to effectively use the information created by IoT devices is the major challenge today.
But Goodness said AT&T's IoT strategy is lacking in IoT analytics. AT&T has some functionality found in a typical IoT platform, for example, an application enablement environment that allows customers to develop value-added capabilities for functionality related to IoT systems, he said, citing AT&T's M2X storage service and the Cisco Jasper-based SIM management capability for customers. But what AT&T really lacks is a broad integration platform, a robust deep analytics platform and real device management software, Goodness added.
"Cisco Jasper is not an IoT platform. No matter how many times Cisco says that out loud, it is not; it is a SIM management platform," he said. "So, AT&T lacks some very specific things."
Goodness said he often tells CSPs the "shame of the CSP industry" is that they don't marry SIM management and device management as organic capabilities within their platforms because that's really what customers want them to do.
"The truth is, most CSPs avoid device management software because they want to avoid the level-one, level-two calls when some IoT device starts to have problems," he said. "They don't want to have to provide that level of support."
Moving forward, Goodness said CSPs are going to have to create end-to-end bundled systems and become managed service providers.
"But AT&T and most CSPs are not aggressive in selling beyond the SIM card and the network service," Goodness said. Salespeople understand network service contracts, and they understand SIM. "They want to get in, get out and get that margin-rich contract," he said. "It takes a much more educated salesforce to sell an end-to-end solution that is wrapped in a managed service."