Mobile

AT&T’s John Donovan makes the case for “the new Ma Bell”

AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan argued today that his company has become faster and more innovative, responding to the needs of both developers and consumers.

Donovan was speaking at the VentureBeat Mobile Summit in Sausalito, Calif., where he said he was ready to answer “tough questions” from my boss, VentureBeat Editor-in-Chief Matt Marshall. Of course, many of those questions revolved around continuing complaints about AT&T’s service in iPhone-dense areas like New York City and San Francisco.

Donovan said, “Anyone who sits here and says that this was really forecastable pre-2007 should have been smart enough to go sit on standards bodies” and push for infrastructure that can support current loads. He said no one could have predicted iPhone usage patterns — for example that a group of portfolio managers might be walking down the street, hit a “do not walk” sign, whip out their phones for a quick check of the latest news and data, then close their apps once they can cross the street.

“I don’t think anyone contemplated that that world would be upon us that quickly,” Donovan said.

Fair enough, but one of the attendees pointed out that Donovan is talking about data. Even if there’s an unprecedented amount of this data usage, why has that resulted in so many dropped calls for AT&T customers?

“Voice and data are operating on the same network,” Donovan said. “Simultaneous voice and data creates a unique set of challenges.” (Presumably, he was taking a dig at Verizon, which does not support data and voice at the same time on the iPhone.)

Still, Donovan said AT&T is pursuing every possible solution to improve the network. Of course, he has made similar statements before (at last year’s MobileBeat conference, he said the carrier will “move Heaven and Earth” to improve the network), but Donovan said there are some things like spectrum and grid density that “don’t change overnight.” While AT&T pursues long-term solutions, it’s also taking more immediate steps, like working with app developers to warn them off “bad actor” behavior that will unnecessarily tax the network. Donovan also said subsidies for 3G microcells won’t fix the network.

Speaking of developers, Donovan offered AT&T’s closer relationship with outside developers as evidence of “the new Ma Bell.” Donovan said he has been making a concerted effort to reach out to the startup and venture capital communities, often through “speed date” meetings where the carrier tries to meet with as many developers as possible.

On June 24 of last year, Donovan said AT&T met with around 20 companies as part of this speed dating program. Then it chose seven of them to work with more closely, and by August they were writing code together. By January, he said, they were in limited beta testing, and now they’re on “limited production.” To people in the startup world, that might seem like a “very, very long time,” Donovan acknowledged, but for AT&T that’s cutting two-thirds of the time out of the normal process.

VentureBeat will be exploring more mobile themes at our MobileBeat 2011 conference in July.

[photo by Dean Takahashi]


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  1. [...] the lights on.  But AT&T is smart, it knows it needs to innovate and be developer friendly.  John Donovan, AT&T CTO, wants to deliver tens of billions of API calls to developers on his network this [...]