AT&T's IoT leadership started with a vision and the Amazon Kindle

Sue Marek

LAS VEGAS - It all started in 2007 with the Amazon Kindle.

I remember writing about this interesting new device from Amazon called the Kindle that was going to use Sprint's (NYSE: S) EV-DO network for over-the-air downloads of digital books. The business model for this OTA distribution of content was groundbreaking because the cost of the wireless connectivity was bundled into the price of the book and not an extra fee the consumer had to pay.

And while Sprint deserves credit for being the first operator to deliver wireless connectivity to the Kindle, the company quickly lost that lead because of the limitations of its CDMA network technology, which could not compete with GSM for a global footprint. 

Shortly after that first Kindle launched, Amazon switched to AT&T (NYSE: T) because it wanted GSM for the device's underlying wireless connectivity. That helped usher in a new era in the industry -- the beginning of the Internet of Things. Today's it's an area that AT&T is leading globally -- at the end of third quarter 2015, the company reported 1.6 million connected device subscriber additions, including 1 million connected cars. It's also a position that other wireless operators are desperately trying to replicate.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show here, where IoT was clearly one of the hottest topics around, the divide between AT&T and its competitors in the IoT space became even more evident as the company announced yet another deal with a car maker to embed its LTE modules, bringing its total number of deals with automobile OEMs to nine out of the 16 major car makers globally. And, perhaps even more importantly, AT&T announced a partnership several other heavyweights including Cisco, Ericsson, GE, Qualcomm, Deloitte, Intel and more to develop a framework for smart cities that will make it easier for cities to be connected. The group also named three cities that will be testbeds for this effort, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas.

The early champion behind AT&T's IoT efforts is Glenn Lurie, the former head of the company's emerging devices business and the current president and CEO of AT&T Mobility. I sat down with Lurie earlier this week to talk about the company's IoT lead, among other things. Lurie likens AT&T's Smart Cities Alliance to its similar efforts in the automotive space, saying that the company realized early on that it had to form partnerships and alliances with others to move the needle on these new businesses -- which are complex.

Interestingly, however, Lurie noted that city leaders, unlike car maker CEOs, are actually more willing to try to figure out the ecosystem and what needs to be done to move their cities ahead.

"You've seen our success in automotive and our ability to get in there and bring partners with us," Lurie said. "We haven't bought anyone. What we did was build the Drive platform [AT&T's connected car platform] and go be the best partner we can be to these automobile OEMs. We brought the power of partnerships and alliances with us."

Lurie conceded that making cities and city services like water, energy and transportation more efficient through wireless connectivity will not be an easy task, but he believes the industry has to start somewhere. "We want to prove that these things can make the city a better place and have a payoff. I think with partners like Qualcomm, Ericsson, GE and Deloitte and the others we will go in there together and show it can work."

And while other wireless operators have also been making some IoT inroads, none have come close to doing what AT&T has done in this space -- at least not yet.

As part of his 2016 predictions, T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) President and CEO John Legere hinted that his company will start doing "real implementations" around IoT and plans to disrupt the space. "We've been hearing about IoT for a long time -- especially from AT&T who thinks they can mask their flailing consumer wireless business with lots of cars and other low-value IOT connections," he said in the post.

"In 2016, we'll start to see some real implementations practiced, probably along the lines of what Google's done with Nest -- which is, of course, available at T-Mobile," Legere said. "These 'just-works' appliances will be smart enough and helpful enough that consumers will catch on and start to adopt IoT devices in meaningful numbers. And, for T-Mobile, when we see these markets get ready for prime time, we'll be ready to disrupt them just like we've done to the carriers everywhere else!"

Lurie's response to Legere's claims: "AT&T decided eight years ago that we wanted to take a lead in this space. We have platforms that are hard to replicate. We have experience that is impossible to replicate. We have built a reputation for being a very good partner that is honest and fair in this space. These kinds of assets are more important than throwing out claims you will blow up a market that are you aren't in …at all."

Can other operators make a dent in AT&T's IoT lead? It's not going to be easy, but I do think one area that still lacks innovation is the business model. Back in IoT's early days, Amazon pioneered the concept of building wireless connectivity into the price of an ebook, but that model hasn't proliferated. And that may create an opening for other players to excel. --Sue