AT&T Seeks to Trump Market Through Multiscreen App Store

G.W. Shaw, AVP, U-verse product management, AT&T

G.W. Shaw, AVP, U-verse product management, AT&T

July 21, 2012 – AT&T has taken steps to accelerate app development for its multiscreen service with a rollout strategy that anticipates eventual delivery of live as well as on-demand U-verse premium TV service across its fixed, Wi-Fi and mobile networks.
The carrier’s latest move down the TVE path entails expansion of companion device features and content for access on Apple devices, including social networking components, more on-demand movies and TV programs; enabling remote control capabilities previously introduced on the iPad for use with the iPhone and iPod, and sports features for iPad users. Essentially, the new features bring some elements that were available to U-verse subscribers over the AT&T mobile service to iPad users on the fixed network and vice versa, with a deepening of the personalization capabilities associated with the company’s evolving app store operations.

“With our U-verse apps, you can pull up more info about shows, share about what you’re watching, and whether you’re in or outside the home, you can access compelling content,” says Jeff Weber, president of content and advertising sales for AT&T Home Solutions. “And it’s included as part of your U-verse TV packages.”

Unlike many competitors’ TV Everywhere services, the AT&T version of TVE does not yet include live content, with the exception of a couple of Fox channels now available to viewers through its online portal. But the company has expanded the reach of on-demand content by enabling Apple devices to access HBO, Cinemax, Starz, Encore, Movieplex and Music Choice videos through the AT&T app store.

This content was already available through the online portal to subscribers on laptop and desktop computers and to mobile users on Apple and Android devices, notes G.W. Shaw, assistant vice president for U-verse product management. “Depending on the device platform, this is the first or second generation increase in content that can be accessed by U-verse subscribers on connected devices,” Shaw says.

“What we’re announcing is that we’ve added this content to our apps,” he explains. “U-verse online has been out a couple of years and now has over 100,000 titles available for subscribers. We’re unlocking that content for more devices.”

While the mobile U-verse service has been accessible through Android as well as Apple smartphones, the new expansion into the tablet domain and various feature enhancements tied to the company’s app store are not yet available to Android devices, he adds. “The Android domain is coming,” he says. “We’re just finishing up the work building APIs for Android.”

Distribution of live programming to connected devices is coming as well, Shaw says. “We’re absolutely looking at what our options are there,” he notes.

Last year major cable MSOs began offering live streaming of premium content, typically to iPads. This year they’ve been expanding those offerings, in some cases to include the entire cable channel lineup while adding more device profiles.

“We’re used to being leaders in this market, and that will continue,” Shaw says. “We’re looking at different ways to do live streaming that make it a better experience for consumers.”

One of the challenges AT&T faces concerns the fact that the bandwidth required to support unicast streaming of live content to devices of every description could test the capacity of its DSL access links, which currently operate at up to 24 megabits per second. All network service providers with the possible exception of end-to-end fiber network owners like Verizon face the reality of dealing with a market not too far off where people are watching whatever they want in HD wherever they happen to be.

And much work is underway on all fronts to accommodate the associated bandwidth challenges, in cable’s case by resorting to other means than individual unicast sessions for every program stream to every user and in AT&T’s case through means the company chooses not to discuss. But judging by what the company is willing to say about its approach to addressing broadband data rates that have propelled subscriber growth at a faster rate on the cable side, the strategy is to bring LTE and Wi-Fi into the picture in ways that change consumers’ perception of what a broadband subscription is all about.

Responding to ScreenPlays’ query as to how the bandwidth limitations of DSL might be addressed, either through next-generation DSL technology, deeper fiber penetration or something else, a company spokesman replies via email:

“The definition of broadband is changing. Broadband was once about a high-speed connection to the Internet at home. Now it’s about a connection where you need it. Customers need speed and mobility to stay connected to content and services, and we’re addressing this demand through a combination of our wired, Wi-Fi and wireless networks.

“We operate the nation’s largest Wi-Fi network among wireless carriers with more than 30,000 hotspots. Our 4G LTE network is expanding rapidly and achieving speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G – and our HSPA+ network with expanded backhaul covers more customers than any competitor’s 4G network and delivers great speeds up to four times faster than 3G. Our broadband services include downstream speeds of up to 24 Mbps, and our customers choose from a wide selection of broadband plans at affordable price points to meet their needs.

“We’ve always said that our services will continue to evolve along with our customers, just as they have since we launched broadband service.”

Bandwidth issues aside, AT&T has a great advantage over non-IPTV competitors owing to the fact it’s able to leverage all the benefits of IP without having to change out customers’ CPE, Shaw notes. “It really helps that our network is 100 percent IP based, which gives us a lot of technological flexibility from a service upgrade standpoint that our competitors don’t have,” he says. “There’s no need to switch out receivers or equipment. We just push software upgrades to the home so that everything we offer is available to every customer through their U-verse receivers, whether they have ‘50s era tube TVs or the latest HD sets. They don’t have to use DNLA; they don’t have to do anything to enable new services and features. That’s the tipping point of what we’re doing.”

The IP advantage is on display with the latest work AT&T has expended on building features for connected devices, he adds. While the announced enhancements might be seen as incremental to what’s already in play, in point of fact the carrier has built a foundation for applications that provides an efficient, fast-to-market environment for developing and delivering easy-to-use personalized features across all its network outlets, he asserts.

The fact that more than 90 percent of the four million plus U-verse IPTV subscribers also subscribe to the company’s broadband service “gives us a powerful framework to deliver new services,” Shaw says. Now the network can deliver companion device apps over the broadband link that are applicable to what subscribers are watching on their TV sets without requiring users to manually communicate their viewing choices, he adds.

As examples, he cites work done with social networking app suppliers Miso, Wayin and BuddyTV Guide, which were announced in October and demonstrated at CES in January. “With the U-verse enablement platform we’ve have built a set of APIs that third-party app developers like Miso and Wayin can build into their apps,” he explains. “They have the ability to do a lot of things with those apps to customize users’ experience.

“Through our APIs the app is talking to the receiver and understanding what’s happening at the receiver, if the customer wishes that to happen,” he continues. “In the past, if a customer was watching Friends and wanted to find out about a dress Monica was wearing, she had to tell the app, I’m watching Friends and I want more information. Here the app delivers complementary experiences based on what the viewer is watching.”

The social apps, for example, allow users to put them to use without extra steps in the communications process. Miso lets users share what they’re watching, discover new shows based on what your friends watch and get information about favorite shows. Wayin is an app facilitating sharing of opinions and other items pertaining to shows being watched while BuddyTV Guide is a personalized recommendation platform with additional features including enhanced content, show reminders and support for real-time commenting on shows.

These apps and others, including features such as AT&T’s new U-verse video bill app, are emerging from a network of AT&T Foundry development centers in the U.S. and Israel. “At the AT&T Foundry in Palo Alto, which is focused on the consumer side, we’re building prototypes and trying to see how fast we can execute on new features,” Shaw says. “We have app developers coming in all the time to work with us.”

Sometimes the collaboration requires interaction with TV program suppliers to win their support. “If we think an app has a content component that presents a challenge to content owners we’ll get in touch with the content organization if we think this could be something big and get the conversation going with the content people and the developer,” he says. Increasingly, content developers are coming in to the Foundry on their own to look at what’s in play that might be useful for them, he adds.

The U-verse video billing app is an idea that came out of the AT&T Foundry in Ra’anana, Israel, according to John Donovan, senior executive vice president of AT&T technology and network operations. “A company called SundaySky presented its technology in a “fast pitch” presentation to AT&T executives,” Donovan reports in a recent blog. “In keeping with our goal for the AT&T Foundry to be a rapid innovator, we worked with the information technology group at AT&T to bring U-verse video bill to our customers within twelve months.”

The app is an automatically-generated, customized video with computer animation and voice narration that explains the elements of an individual U-verse bill. “The video bill is not merely a generic overview, but a line-by-line visual and audio tour of your individual bill, emailed directly to you and also available when you log in to your myAT&T account online,” Donovan says.

Development of the remote control capabilities for iPhone and iPods on the U-verse service is another example of how the new APIs for U-verse apps are facilitating development, Shaw notes. Users now have the ability to use the devices as full-featured, intuitive U-verse remote controls with channel, guide, DVR, interactive app and on-demand controls, Shaw notes.

“We allow users to take advantage of gestural features where they can change channels with a flip of the finger up or down,” he says. “When they receive the guide and programming schedule on the device, the standard remote control is deleted so that the devices can be used with all the functionalities instead.”

And what each user receives as options on the device navigation screen can be personalized with ever more apps over time, he adds. ”You’re going to see us use that functionality aggressively over the next six to 12 months,” he says.

While the U-verse app development environment in the Foundry centers expedites delivery of new apps into the market, AT&T is maintaining strict control over what gets into circulation. “As an app developer you have to go through our app development portal just like you do on the mobile side,” he explains. “We have to validate the app that it’s acceptable and that it’s using our APIs in the right way.”

So far, AT&T is “happy with the volume of usage and length of time customers with iPhones and iPads are spending with the new apps,” Shaw says. “What we see is when customers use these apps there’s a pretty exciting decrease in churn. Customers who use these apps stay around longer, which is a great thing.

“We also see customer satisfaction scores going higher,” he adds. “So we know we’re starting to hit a sweet spot.”