AT&T Pilot Mixes Location Accuracy, Context and Mobile

The way that US telecom carrier AT&T is approaching APIs for the enterprise offers key insights for app developers and business stakeholders looking for market entry opportunities into a global ecosystem. ProgrammableWeb spoke with AT&T Vice President of Ecosystem Development and Platform Solutions, Laura Merling about the broader API strategy. Meanwhile Chris Aron, Product Manager of AT&T Location Information Services, demonstrated how the AT&T approach translates into an industry-specific partnership with Sabre, the global travel tech company.

What we can learn from AT&T

Seeing how major telecommunications players like AT&T map out and implement an API platform strategy provides valuable insights for a whole range of business sectors:

  • What key messaging is AT&T using to connect with the demands that are influencing enterprise decision-making around APIs?
  • What technologies are AT&T advancing that app developers and B2B service providers should know about and prepare for?
  • How would AT&T's service partnerships translate to another industry vertical?

This week, AT&T reported a profit of $6.9 billion for the final quarter of 2013, reinforcing the telecomm company's position at Number 15 on Forbes' Most Valuable Global Brands List. Speaking with ProgrammableWeb, Laura Merling - VP of Ecosystem Development and Platform Solutions - explained how APIs are expected to help build even further business growth.

Enterprise drivers for API-enabled solutions

"We've had an API strategy in place for a long time now," said Merling, "but this was largely centered on internal uses, and in regards to external, it was about a longtail ecosystem of fostering innovative third party apps. It wasn't really focused on the enterprise customer base and looking at ways to help them engage their customers better."

"Now we are finding three main drivers for the enterprise:

  • How to do more with less by using APIs,
  • How to create a unique, competitive experience that lets enterprise differentiate the value they bring to the market via API, and
  • How do we help them drive a mobile-global strategy."

Merling credits AT&T's clarity around strategy as stemming from a focus on how they assist enterprises with 'mobility-type capabilities': "We started thinking about it as a mobile-first strategy for our customers and from that, we defined four key areas our team is focused on." (Merling notes other business units across AT&T are focused on other goals such as the connected car or 'digital life'.)

The composable enterprise

Merling lists the four main service areas of AT&T's Ecosystem Development and Platform Solutions:

  • Video services: The ability for enterprise to transcode, store and search video content on a mobile device.
  • Communications: Call management APIs, speech services (including voice biometrics, creating a concierge service with speech), offering traditional services from a telecommunications carrier but embedded in an application (for example, offering instant messaging within an app or creating a social experience within an enterprise app).
  • Networks: Managing core infrastructure like monitoring network performance, status analytics of the device currently being used, and a new service called sponsored data which includes things like offering a 1800-type concept but with data, for example, using remote patient care via video in which costs are allocated based on particular endpoints, and enterprise app payments for BYOD where an enterprise would have the capability to pay for data usage associated with a particular selection of apps on a mobile device.
  • Data: This area looks at individually identifiable, opt-in data across two areas: subscriber data (their device, account, etc and creating a mobile identity toolkit so that subscribers can bundle services together to allow for account Authentication and reduce enterprise drop-off rates), and "taking location services to the next level" by creating a hybrid-location service that combines cellular and wifi data, adding bluetooth services support to both increase location accuracy and provide a more seamless experience for roaming mobile devices.

Merling sees these four areas as providing the types of API functionalities required by enterprise customers to design new services that meet immediate end-consumer needs and that can be developed with a fast time-to-market.

The Sabre Partnership

To provide one example of how these functionalities could be composed into an enterprise service, AT&T has launched a new partnership with the global travel tech company, Sabre.

IMAGE: How Sabre defines the data and service Integration opportunities they can provide to their airline customers

Sabre provides multiple integration services to the airline industry and is currently conducting a pilot project at Dallas/Fort Worth airport in Texas to trial the Ecosystem Development's service offerings. The partnership with Sabre aims to provide a more personalized, contextual data stream for airline passengers traveling from Fort Worth airport.

The service - an evolution of a roadside assistance program that AT&T had been able to offer based on their ability to pinpoint data on the location of stranded motorists - leverages the value of improving end-customer experiences to reduce burgeoning airline business costs. On the face of it, the mix of service components is aimed at improving a traveler's experience by minimizing pain points such as waiting in TSA queues, or being bored at an airport while waiting for your flight.

The Sabre project aims to use AT&T's Ecosystem Development functionalities to provide retail and service offers (regardless of the consumer's telco carrier) based on the passenger's location in the airport, and the amount of time they have before their flight is scheduled to leave. This may include discount offers at relevant shops and airport cafes, instant notifications of gate changes, or warnings to notify if a passenger is in the wrong departure terminal.

For airlines, the value (in part) is that this shepherding of passengers can help reduce costs attributed to gate delays and late departures. 2012 estimates calculate that when combined - additional staff time, wasted fuel in aircraft sitting at gates for longer than necessary, reduced capacity to use an entire aircraft fleet efficiently, and regulatory penalty fees - airlines spend up to $7.2 billion in the US alone on gate changes and late departures (passengers foot an even larger bill of $16.7 billion in lost and duplicated expenses from late aircraft departures). The thinking behind the Sabre project is that by enhancing a passenger's in-airport experience by providing contextual and personalized information wherever the passenger is in the terminal, a constant communication flow can be maintained that results in passengers smoothly boarding aircraft so as to minimize delays.

It is a win-win-win-win: Sabre provides a technologically advanced service to their airline customers, airlines can better control operational costs, passengers have a more enjoyable in-airport experience, and AT&T gets to test its new hybrid-location technology on a real life project.

Location accuracy

"The Sabre SDK takes GPS, cellular signal and wifi to do indoor location and we will be adding bluetooth to get high accuracy indoor location data," AT&T Product Manager of Location Information Services, Chris Aron told ProgrammableWeb. "Sabre is consuming APIs from TSA, traffic and individual airlines and we are working with Sabre to create an enhanced experience for both the travelers and the airlines."

Aron says that the business model is based on general license and usage fees and is a flexible enough model that it can be the base for use with other relevant industry verticals in future. In this case, AT&T charges Sabre, and Sabre charges airlines, who in turn offer the contextual experience to their end customers (passengers) as a value-add. For airlines, if the project is successful, the cost of providing the service should be in part offset by reducing the costs incurred from gate changes and late departures.

For AT&T, one of the benefits of the pilot is to perfect indoor location accuracy and the associated contextual content service delivery. Aron explains: "With new technology, industry always gets more aggressive. With location accuracy, 5 meters used to be where you wanted to get to and now its 1 meter accuracy. For supply chain management, you will want to get down to 1 meter accuracy. The Sabre project's investment in location means greater intentional coverage and high-speed location identification down to 40 milliseconds."

The Sabre pilot is expected to continue through the first half of 2014 and has a wide range of implications across retail, healthcare, and a plethora of other industries. To date, when many speak of the advantages of combining accurate, location-specific data and personal information about a consumer in real-time on a BYOD device, the great vision always seems to be that this will mean we can push discount coupons right to a consumer's mobile just as they pass a store, as if that is the endgame of contextual data flow. A project like the pilot from AT&T and Sabre, while still couched in terms of making this possible, has the potential to open up industry's mindset a lot more about what sort of relevant, experience-rich, and perhaps more environmental and economic value can truly be created from the interplay of data and location-services in real-time.

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self and e-commerce. He can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

Be sure to read the next Enterprise article: ClearBlade's MBaaS Enables Enterprise Mobility