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AT&T learns from gaming, looks to modularity to expand experience

Service providers are expanding their roles in customers' lives, to become "experience providers," all while they transform themselves internally. AT&T is launching a new video service, looking to online gaming for inspiration, and using SOA to simplify service expansion.

At last week's Cisco Partner Summit in Honolulu, Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers talked more about the idea of service providers expanding their role to become "experience providers."

That may seem a bit futuristic or like something cooked up by Cisco's marketing team, but in truth it's an apt description for what carriers are already offering to customers. Take AT&T. The company currently supports services ranging from implementing Cisco's TelePresence for remote meetings to RFID for supply chain integration to delivering HBO to an IPTV endpoint or YouTube to an iPhone.

Joe Weinman, strategy and emerging services vice president of corporate planning at AT&T, believes his company has a head start in developing experiences for its customers because of expertise that comes from what some might think is an unlikely source: online gaming. According to Weinman, AT&T has a "dominant position" in gaming, hosting for big names including Microsoft Game Studios, Blizzard (World of Warcraft), Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest), and Konami.

Gaming, said Weinman, points to what's next in telecommunications. "Games are rich experiences and rich graphics. Latency from the endpoint to where the service node is and back to another point is absolutely crucial. Gaming is not a niche, either from a revenue perspective or considering how much time consumers spend on it. To me what's interesting about gaming is that it defines what any kind of interactive experience is going to look like: rich graphics, multimodal, and low-latency. You've got to assume that's going to evolve into interactive, live video capture transmitted over a multi-megabit connection, which will drive the need for enhanced services and bandwidth effectiveness," said Weinman.

One step toward interactive video is AT&T's Video Share service, which became nationally available last summer and is picking up in usage. The service allows customers to stream live synchronous video via mobile phones.

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 These next-generation services and experiences require an infrastructure that is complex and needs constant investment. Video share is enabled, according to Weinman, by higher bandwidth on the wireless side as well as the wireline side, greater network agility and flexibility in terms of bandwidth on demand and route control on demand, and quality of service through MPLS.

Joe Spagnola, director of service provider marketing at Cisco, acknowledges that a company like AT&T has a wealth of services and resources available. The key, he said, is "harnessing it all together and making it easy to use, easy to sell, and easy to manage for the end user. They have to find a way to blend their assets together to offer an experience to you that keeps you as a user."

The network infrastructure can be the glue that binds disparate technologies and enables service providers to make the leap from providing segmented services to providing customer experiences. "There's the transport network, then there's the policy, identity, and control elements of the network where a lot of intelligence fits in," said Spagnola. "Taking a comprehensive approach to linking all of this broadband capability to provide a seamless experience for the user creates more of a sticky relationship."

Weinman agreed, noting that AT&T is fairly far along in its integration of IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). The carrier is also moving toward a service-oriented architecture (SOA) model for building new services.

"If you try to build new architecture and reinvent the wheel every time you introduce new services, that's not scalable and doesn't lead to accelerated time to market," Weinman said. "We're building an environment that includes everything on a component basis -- things like digital rights management wrappers, micropayments, and back-end billing event integration -- will become standard SOA components that then can interact with each other. That allows us, our customers and our partners to leverage our technology to quickly and easily create new business models."

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