AT&T bringing the network closer to the cloud

AT&T's CTO Krish Prabhu says that the company is also resolving bandwidth and coverage issues to bring the cloud closer

AT&T wants to change how mobile devices are used, and the company's chief technology officer Krish Prabhu is looking for ways to deliver "intelligent" cloud services to consumers over its wide-ranging network.

One research project that exemplifies Prabhu's vision is Watson, which enables the use of voice commands not only for control, but also transcription, translation or voice-based search in the cloud. With Watson, AT&T wants to make speech and natural language processing an integral part of how users interact with smartphones.

"People want to do more with the network and can do more if the cloud is closer to them." Prabhu said in an interview with the IDG News Service this week.

The company this week released Watson APIs (application programming interfaces) so developers can add voice recognition, text-to-speech and voice-based search features into mobile applications.

"Now what we're going to do is to put Watson in the cloud, open it up, and when we open it up it will be interesting to see how people use it," Prabhu said.

AT&T's goal is to help customers achieve more on mobile devices through cloud services tied to the network, Prabhu said. But the spectrum is limited and there is a growing appetite for bandwidth, so AT&T is taking steps to deliver a wider pipe and coverage so cloud services can seamlessly talk to users, Prabhu said.

Innovations like Watson were shown alongside other cloud projects at an event in New York this week. A project called Got My Stuff tags objects such as car keys or laptops, and a smartphone can alert a user if an object has been forgotten at home. An enterprise cloud project includes the ability for system administrators to locate specific devices in danger zones and backup data remotely from devices in case of events like tornados.

AT&T has a storied history with some key scientific inventions through its research labs. But the nature of research has changed in the Internet age, with the focus slowly shifting to services, Prabhu said.

"Today the inventions are not so much unique point inventions, they are more about bringing things together, to get more utility out of something," Prabhu said.

The cloud is a fantastic delivery model because it is portable, and can also be decoupled from the network to some extent, Prabhu said, adding that mobility and cloud are key for services like Watson.

However, delivering cloud services with low latency is an ongoing challenge, and AT&T is using a combination of technologies to make wiser use of available spectrum. Some include using software techniques for congestion management and placing antennas in selective places for wider reach.

The company is also increasingly trying to off-load traffic from 3G or 4G networks to Wi-Fi networks wherever available. AT&T currently has thousands of hotspots around the world, but there are some software issues, standards and protocols that need to be ironed out, Prabhu said. For example, the transition of a connection from a 4G network to Wi-Fi is not yet where AT&T wants it to be, and the company is addressing that.

An improvement could also come with the possible follow-up to LTE called LTE-Advanced, which Prabhu said is generally viewed as a software-only upgrade. But the industry is looking forward to the next air interface that will succeed LTE, and research for that standard is ongoing, Prabhu said.

"When we use cloud services it's not just the throughput, it's very low latency, then I think the big frontier is going to be the next-generation of devices, but also the next air interface, something beyond LTE," Prabhu said. "I do believe you will see something on that front over the next five years."

Prabhu has a lot to worry about everyday, including keeping the network secure, meeting capacity and expanding coverage. The company is also looking into technologies like small cells to expand coverage and white spaces to get more spectrum as it tries to bring the network and cloud services closer.

"I think there will be advances in antenna technology, there will be advances in different carriers, and how can a device pick up different carriers spread over broader spectrum. All of these things will have to be done at a lower cost, it has got to be smaller and more powerful. There will be progress and I think we will use every bit of spectrum we have," Prabhu said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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