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AT&T demos new technologies for TV, videoconferencing, telemedicine

CTO defends AT&T's 3G networks in wake of iPhone reception problems (see below for video of technology demonstrations)

September 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - NEW YORK -- Engineers at AT&T Labs demonstrated dozens of emerging communications technologies at an event in New York yesterday. The company also defended its 3G network in light of reception problems and dropped calls involving Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G.

"That's a matter for Apple," AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said in comments to reporters when asked if AT&T has felt much customer fallout with reports on 3G reception. Apple has issued software updates to fix the problem, which Donovan called part of a "standard process."

But Donovan also said that being the exclusive iPhone carrier in the U.S. has benefited AT&T, which offers a 3G network used not only by the iPhone but by more than 50 wireless devices from a variety of manufacturers.

"The fallout [of the iPhone connection problems] has been positive," he said. "The attention to our 3G network has been good for us."

Donovan made the brief comment to reporters at the end of a day of demonstrations of emerging technologies, some that could become products or services.

Speech recognition technologies

The company showed more than 25 demonstrations of speech recognition technology on TVs, PCs and wireless devices using AT&T's "Watson" speech engine software. Also shown were interactive IPTV, 3D video (without glasses) and a demonstration of how AT&T engineers are using Second Life, a virtual online world, to help test rogue attacks on AT&T products.

Videoconferencing technology for home-based users and higher quality videoconferencing technology for businesses were also shown, although no formal plans for rolling out such services were given. The company also touted new telemedicine applications, demonstrating how a patient could have his body temperature or weight sent from his home to a doctor's office via wireless Zigbee technology that connected to a router and then to a cellular network.

Donovan, who assumed his role on April 1, said the purpose of the event was to show the continuing technology prowess of AT&T Labs, which he called "the world's best." Because of the mergers of companies that created AT&T Inc. and other industry consolidations, the work of thousands of AT&T Labs scientists and engineers hasn't been as public as it was years ago, he said.

"Working here has been humbling," he said, noting that his own background was more focused on management than engineering.

A common theme of those emerging technologies involved IP networking and the way that a common protocol can converge wired and wireless networks, as well as bring together applications for use in both homes and businesses.

Because of the superiority of all-IP networking, Donovan said he is working with his managers to come up with a deadline for when AT&T will stop selling traditional circuit-switched products based on Time Division Multiplexing (TDM). After that deadline passes, AT&T will sell only IP-based routers and switches to its large business customers, he said.

"We're aggressive on IP," Donovan said. "The sooner [we have a deadline to end TDM], the better." Overall, IP traffic over the AT&T backbone was negligible in 2005, but it grew to 40% in the last year, he said.

Donovan said he wasn't concerned about competitors stealing ideas from the technology demonstrations, partly because AT&T Labs is so proficient at commercializing its inventions.

"If we can't create faster than [competitors] can copy us, we're dead. I think we can innovate faster than they can copy," Donovan said.

Videoconferencing

There were two demonstrations of videoconferencing, one for home users and a higher-quality form for business users called telepresence, which requires the installation of a specially designed room with lighting and sound equipment. Donovan said telepresence has been "transformational" inside AT&T. The company has about a dozen telepresence rooms using gear from Cisco Systems Inc. Another dozen rooms will soon be added because the technology is so popular, Donovan said.

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AT&T Labs engineers show emerging voice input and telehealth technologies.


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