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Forget About the Smart Home: AT&T Wants to Help Build Smart Cities

(Photo: Getty Images)

First we had smart phones. Then we were promised smart homes. Now, if AT&T has its way, we’ll all be living in smart cities.

And it’s not thinking small, either. “We believe the scale is big,” explained AT&T Mobility CEO Glenn Lurie in an interview this week. “Real-time data on every aspect of the city.” From traffic and road maintenance, to parking and digital signage on public transit, to water supply and waste management — that is, garbage — AT&T thinks it can help cities manage everything better.

The telecom giant is partnering with a who’s who of Big Data (Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm) to create a “smart cities framework.” With its partners, AT&T is aiming to be a one-stop shop for municipalities, states, and the federal agencies looking to service citizens more effectively.

Cash-strapped cities

AT&T knows that it can’t just make promises. It needs to deliver the goods for cash-strapped cities. “Each city has a different goal and different financials,” says Lurie. “What are these things really going to do?” In Lurie’s words, the goal is to make cities “a better place to live.” If AT&T can help a city improve the lives of its citizens in a concrete, measurable way (especially if it can help a near-broke government save some money), it believes the market potential is simply enormous.

“You have to prove that there’s a payback for the city,” says Lurie. “Make it a city where people want to live and drive economic growth.” It could be smart lighting that uses less energy or connected traffic lights that double as vehicle-to-vehicle communications and Wi-Fi access points. If a city can connect all these utilities together and provide real-time data, it has the potential to make things much more efficient.

Working with governments is a huge opportunity, but it also requires some out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to financing. “We have to be very flexible and willing to look at new business models,” says Lurie. “My guess is each city will be different. Each will be a custom deal.” He says AT&T needs to be innovative in how it does business.

Spend now, save later

One thing that makes governments unique is their ability to be forward thinking, if they have the right management. If a city can spend $500 million today to save $2 billion over 20 years, that might make a lot of sense. For a company that can’t see beyond the next quarter, that’s a much bigger ask. And that’s where AT&T’s biggest hurdle lies: proving that their solutions will actually work.

To try and prove that, AT&T is announcing initial smart city framework deployments in Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. Though the announcement is lacking in specifics, Lurie thinks those cities will begin to see benefits this year.

In what will either be a prescient prediction or a massive case of institutional hubris, Lurie compared the smart cities movement to the launch of the iPhone eight years ago. “All of a sudden, the world changed,” he says. There are things that people simply expect now that were unimaginable before the iPhone.

“This is exciting on so many levels. We’re scratching the surface of what this can be.”

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