with David Christopher, AT&T Mobility CMO
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, AT&T (NYSE: T) announced that it would open up its Digital Life home automation and security platform to third-party products. The company also launched its M2X Data Service platform for the Internet of Things as a commercial product, and the carrier unveiled a rollover data plan. At CES, FierceWireless Editor Phil Goldstein caught up with AT&T Mobility CMO David Christopher to talk about rising competition in the wireless market, opportunities in the connected car and home markets, and more. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
FierceWireless: We've seen some of your competitors slash prices and really go after AT&T. How do you respond to that pressure? Are you concerned?
Christopher: What we're focused on is defining the future, where wireless transforms virtually every industry. We believe you've got to invest early in these new platforms, like the car, like the home, like machine-to-machine and business. And that really excites us. The reality of it is that the consumer wants and needs somebody to help them enable their lives across the home, car, whatever. We think we're really well positioned to do that, and we've been focused on it for a long time. We think we have a nice lead in that area. So that's our strategy. And it's certainly not to focus on one dimension like price.
FierceWireless: Does T-Mobile's launch of rollover data in any way fundamentally alter the playing field?
Christopher: What [T-Mobile] did? No. We're focused on our customers. I don't get up every day and worry about those guys. We worry about what we can do to create better customer experiences, create new products and services that do the things we've talked about: integrate wireless with your home, your car, your business. We think we're so much more focused on the future than the one dimension you see from some of our competitors, which is just price.
FierceWireless: A lot of advances in network technology--Network Functions Virtualization, Software-Defined Networking and enhanced intercell interference coordination--are complex and not easy to explain to customers. How do you explain to customers the improvements you're making in the network?
Christopher: What customers care about is, what's in it for me? That I've got the reliability, the speed, the coverage, the strength of the network when I need it. As a marketer, we've got to simplify things and communicate the benefit. A lot of the technical "how" probably doesn't show up in an actual ad, but more of the benefit of what it enables to our customers [does]. Now, proof points are important in advertising--reasons to believe that a claim is real. We're always looking for those, but also in ways that are simple and understandable for the average consumer.
FierceWireless: Last year AT&T issued an ad that talked about Distributed Antenna Systems, and it actually mentioned that technology. Do you find that approach effective?
Christopher: That campaign has been very effective. But I think we have to be careful that we don't get too technical in our descriptions. So when you look at [AT&T's] latest ads, it's pretty layman's terms, like we put the power at the top of antennas or we've built more cell towers to make our network denser. Things like that are pretty understandable and you don't need to be an engineer to understand them.
FierceWireless: Do you think it matters which vendor supplies the connected car experience, whether it's an Audi-branded service or Ford Sync or Google Android?
Christopher: I think customers want ease of use and they want interoperability with the things they're already using. So, for example [we have] this capability called Twinning, the ability for your smartphone to twin to another device. There are a couple of examples of that. One is in a wearable: I don't want another phone number for the watch. I want the phone number that I use and have had for 10 years to work on the watch. This technology that we have developed allows the device to twin, meaning two SIMs share the same number. So it's a network-based capability that once I have twinned with the watch, I can go for a run and when somebody calls my mobile phone it calls the watch. [This allows you to] leave your phone at home.
Well the same is true for the car. So I twin to the car and then I've got the same mobile number even if I forget my phone. Bluetooth is only a 30-feet radius. If I don't have my phone for whatever reason, with Bluetooth I'm hosed. With our technology, because it's network-based, it's going to work.
FierceWireless: How do you evaluate new business opportunities and models with the connected car?
Christopher: Just like any new venture, we look at lots of different business models that we can bring to market. And the car is very nascent but we know it's going to be very big. And so we are looking at a number of models like Sponsored Data that could make sense for different use cases. Chris [Penrose] and I and others spend a lot of time thinking about, how do we create value for our customers in the car in ways that really simplify and make the connected car experience a great one?
FierceWireless: What are your thoughts on U.S. Cellular's position that its new OnLook home automation and security platform can compete with AT&T's Digital Life?
David Christopher: We're focused on our playing our game. We're focusing on how we can add value and differentiate across the assets that we can bring: great network, great smartphone portfolio, great tablets portfolio, with the car, the home, and leverage power of the developer community. What those are guys doing, I don't know.
FierceWireless: Do you think though that if other carriers decide to get more involved in the connected home market, that's a good thing? Do you think you can compete?
David Christopher: I think it further legitimizes the opportunity in the category and builds awareness. It's such an early, nascent market, just like the car. That more people talking about how your smartphone can actually control your home is a good thing.