Can AT&T learn to be stupid?

AT&T has been in the press quite a bit of late, and not just for its effort to derail – in an altruistic effort to support the public interest I’m sure – MCI’s escape from bankruptcy and a pile of debt.

Earlier this month, AT&T announced that it is going to spend a lot of money over the next few years on its network. Then, a few days later, AT&T’s chairman said the company is testing a Vonage-like voice-over-IP (VoIP) service that would run over anyone’s networks.

AT&T plans to spend US$3 billion or so to replace its existing network with a newfangled IP and Multi-protocol Label Switching one. The company’s aim is to get rid of the remainder of its once extensive circuit-switched voice-centric technology over the next few years. AT&T’s chief technology officer says it could take a decade to finish switching to the new global network.

A major focus seems to be to try to attract multi-site corporations by having the best edge-to-edge network in the business.

At the same time, AT&T wants to branch out from its managed VoIP service, which it now offers to companies in 40 countries, to a consumer-oriented voice-over-the-Internet service similar to the service Vonage offers. As is the case with the Vonage service, customers wouldn’t have to get their Internet connectivity from AT&T to be able to pay AT&T for the new phone service.

I hope AT&T realizes something about networks by offering the consumer VoIP service. I hope AT&T realizes that, just like it needs the local ISPs to stay out of the way so that AT&T can offer the consumer VoIP service, it needs to stay out of the way on the networks it uses to provide IP service to customers. AT&T, Vonage and many others can offer their services over the Internet because the Internet does not know, or care, what applications are running over it. But historically, AT&T and the other traditional telecom companies have not understood this (see “The Rise of the Stupid Network” at for some history).

AT&T has to understand that after spending all that money upgrading its network to offer IP service that it has to then stop being helpful. Its network should not be “content-aware” or otherwise try to figure out what is running over it. The customer might tag some packets to request special handling, but that should be up to the customer. That means, among other things, that others will offer VoIP services over the AT&T network without AT&T getting a piece of the action and that customers will run their own peer-to-peer applications, including voice-based apps.

It’s not easy for a traditional telecom company to be purposely stupid. While carriers might have adequate experience in doing so when they don’t know what’s going on, it’s another thing entirely to understand when not to make something smart. I wonder if AT&T is up to the challenge.

Disclaimer: I’m not sure Harvard would be up to the same challenge, but I did not ask. Thus, the above is my own view.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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