AT&T wearables to hit the smartwatch runway soon

Wearables with LTE and broadband capabilities are part of its network strategy

Smartwatches for use on AT&T's network will be out this year, a company executive said Wednesday.

"I think you'll see wide-area, high-bandwidth [smart]watches this year at some point," said Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices at AT&T, in an interview.

The company has a group working in Austin, Texas, on thousands of wearable-device prototypes, and is also looking at certifying third-party devices for use on its network, Lurie said.

"A majority of stuff you're going to see today that's truly wearable is going to be in a watch form factor to start," Lurie said. If smartwatch use takes off -- "and we believe it can," Lurie said -- then those devices could become hubs for wearable computing.

Right now smartwatches lack LTE capabilities, so they are largely reliant on smartphones for apps and notifications. With a mobile broadband connection, a smartwatch becomes an "independent device," Lurie said.

"We've been very, very clear in our opinion that a wearable needs to be a stand-alone device," Lurie said.

AT&T and Filip Technologies in January released the Filip child tracker wristwatch, which also allows a parent to call a child over AT&T's network. Filip could be improved, but those are the kind of wearable products that AT&T wants to bring to market.

Wearables for home health care are also candidates for LTE connections, Lurie said, but fitness trackers may be too small for LTE connectivity, at least for now.

Lurie couldn't say when smartglasses would be certified to work on AT&T's network. Google last year said adding cellular capabilities to its Glass eyewear wasn't in the plans because of battery use. But AT&T is willing to experiment with devices to see where LTE would fit.

"It's one thing if I'm buying it to go out for a job, it's another thing if I'm going to wear it everyday. Those are the things people are debating right now -- how that's all going to come out," Lurie said. "There's technology and there's innovation happening, and those things will get solved."

Lurie said battery issues are being resolved, but there are no network capacity issues. Wearable devices don't use too much bandwidth as they relay short bursts of information, unless someone is, for instance, listening to Pandora radio on a smartwatch, Lurie said.

But AT&T is building out network capacity, adding Wi-Fi networks, and virtualizing networks to accommodate more devices.

"We don't have network issues, we don't have any capacity issues," Lurie said. "The key element to adding these devices is a majority of [them] aren't high-bandwidth devices."

AT&T wants to make wearables work with its home offerings like the Digital Life home automation and security system. AT&T is also working with car makers for LTE integration, with wearables interacting with vehicles to open doors and start ignitions.

"I think the future is you don't have to hit a button because the band or watch will know it's you, the car will know it's you, and you've already pre-described when you walk up to the car what you want to do. That's kind of where we're headed," Lurie 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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