AT&T’s Mike Zeto touts smart city progress

LOS ANGELES — AT&T is starting to make serious progress in its smart cities business, according to AT&T’s Mike Zeto.

Zeto is VP and GM of AT&T’s smart cities business, having founded the operation roughly three years ago. Today, Zeto oversees a variety of somewhat related operation at AT&T, ranging from smart cities to drones to public-private partnerships to stadium build-outs.

But despite his seemingly unwieldy list of duties, Zeto said that AT&T has made progress in its efforts to stamp out a position in the nascent but potentially massive smart cities business.

Zeto’s primary example is the operator’s new deal with the city of Los Angeles—announced in conjunction with the MWC Americas trade show held in the heart of the city. “There’s multiple different problems that [public-private partnership] will solve for the city,” Zeto explained.

Zeto said that AT&T’s partnership with Los Angeles includes three specific elements:

1, AT&T will deploy “several hundred” of its “digital infrastructure” products. These monitoring packages include video cameras and sensors that track sounds, air quality, temperature, humidity and other environmental conditions and then sends that data back to city officials so they can watch for things like traffic congestion or the sound of gun shots.

2, AT&T will deploy several “digital kiosks” including in locations near the homeless that will provide information on city services as well as free Wi-Fi connections.

3, AT&T will deploy structure monitoring services onto bridges, buildings and other infrastructure in the city to check for signs of instability and earthquakes.

In return, AT&T said it will get permissions from the city to more quickly deploy small cells in locations throughout the metropolis—a key issue for AT&T as it works to densify its network through the deployment of small cells for 4G and 5G. Indeed, AT&T said that Los Angeles will be one of the first cities where it will deploy mobile 5G services later this year and into next year.

Zeto said that public-private partnerships with cities is one of three different ways that AT&T is moving forward into the smart city business. Aside from public-private partnerships—where no money is exchanged but the operator deploys some services into the city in return for easier access to equipment deployment locations—AT&T is also pursuing its spotlight program and commercial engagements. Roughly eight cities already participate in AT&T’s spotlight program for smart cities, which essentially involves the operator working to collect and analyze city data.

And as for commercial engagements, Zeto said AT&T has inked such agreements with Georgia Power utility for the city of Atlanta, as well as with the city of San Diego. In commercial engagements, Zeto said cities issue RFPs to smart city vendors and then pay the winner of that RFP process to deploy smart city products. Zeto said AT&T’s deal with San Diego is worth $30 million and involves the deployment of 3,200 “digital infrastructure” products and 14,000 LED streetlights, and that the company is currently bidding in Kansas City’s RFP process.

Importantly, Zeto explained that AT&T is currently acting as the master systems integrator in many of its smart city efforts, essentially taking the role that companies like IBM used to play. But Zeto said the goal of AT&T’s smart city business is laudable—for example, he said the operator’s smart city technologies deployed in Atlanta directly lead to a reduction in traffic accidents.

Of course, AT&T is not alone in chasing the smart city opportunity. A variety of players, including Verizon, are also working to tap into the space.

Article updated Sept. 13 to correct information about AT&T's deals in San Diego and Atlanta.