Our Exclusive Interview with Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T

I sat down with Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T, to discuss how Chris and AT&T see IoT evolving through 2019.

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Illustration: © IoT For All

The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the world as we know it. Over the years, the industry has talked about what the future might look like and how our lives might be different as more and more things become connected. That future is no longer a vision; it’s an exciting reality that’s taking shape every day. I sat down with Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T, to discuss how Chris and AT&T see IoT evolving through 2019.

1. “The First Mainstream Self-Driving ‘Things’ Likely Won’t Be Cars”

Chris Penrose: Tractors and farm equipment, heavy machinery for things like mining, drones, and robots will lead the first wave of automation. While self-driving cars may eventually be a staple on the roadways, that reality is still many years away. These other machines will provide an early proving ground and will pave the way for mass automation in the future.

Eric Conn: What is it about these types of machines, i.e. tractors and farm equipment, that make them better suited to be a part of that first wave of automation?

CP: We’ve been doing IoT for 10 years now at AT&T. We deal with nearly every vertical / industry on the planet. Connected cars are definitely a huge space for us, but where we’re seeing even earlier adoption of these autonomous technologies is in the agriculture space.

Part of the reason behind this early adoption is that when you’re farming, you generally don’t have to contend with other vehicles and pedestrians. The ability to plot out and fertilize or plow the land in a confined state that doesn’t have a lot of other potential interference makes it less complicated. Additionally, in some use cases, if an individual is running the farm, there’s only so much time that they can spend behind the wheel, operating these machines. There’s a great deal efficiency that these individuals can gain if they can start operating these machines around the clock.

In addition to the agriculture space, we’ve seen some really interesting use cases in the mining and construction spaces, where you’re able not only to improve productivity—completing tasks more quickly and at lower costs—but also to achieve an even higher quality product because it’s all being controlled via the machine. The whole process becomes safer as well—again because you’re not having to work in environments that are often harsh.

We’ll also begin to see more and more automation with drones. For example, sending a robot or drone into a difficult situation in advance of humans can make a big difference. Being able to fly a drone into a fire or natural disaster situation and use near real-time video surveillance of the scenario to objectively deploy resources behind that is a use case that’s going to continue to emerge more and more. It’s really beneficial to have drones to go in autonomously, improving both safety and outcomes for the first responders on the scene.

EC: I imagine 5G (and eventually 6G) will be key enablers of these use cases. As you implement more and more video-enabled devices to facilitate real-time decision-making, you’ll need super low latency and high reliability—and in some cases, fairly large bandwidth—to be able to operate these devices remotely.

CP: Those are some of the major benefits of the emerging 5G networks. They’re driving that ultra-low latency, high-bandwidth connectivity that’ll allow operators to connect millions of often mission-critical devices.

EC: I’d like to get your opinion on the private LTE market—OnGo, MulteFire, etc.—especially when it comes to industrial IoT (IIoT). The ability to take the many wired connections within industrial spaces that exist because of hard latency and reliability requirements seems to be a real potential area of growth for carriers. Do you see that as a growth area for cellular companies like AT&T?

CP: Yes, we do. We’re having lots of conversations about where the right applications are for potential private LTE deployments. You’re seeing a lot of this happen around smart manufacturing. Building a complete wireless network on which you can run your mission-critical solutions has a lot of appeal. We’re seeing a continued interest in how we can play a role in bringing private solutions together with public offerings to offer the best possible solutions to our customers.

2. “Cities Will Use Gamification to Encourage Citizen Engagement”

EC: Let’s move to the second prediction around citizen engagement and gamification. What do you see from your vantage point?

CP: Smart cities will use network technology in new ways to engage citizens, such as gamification. City residents might get points for things like paying their water bill on time, recycling, reporting potholes, and taking public transit instead of driving. Those points could be redeemed for discounts on services or VIP access to events in the city.

My team at AT&T set up a very specific smart cities practice almost four years ago, and we’ve seen a lot of advances here around smart city solutions. Energy and lighting are two key areas. Water management is another big space, spanning everything from water quality measurement to leak detection to irrigation systems and so on. A third smart city space in which we’re seeing a big need emerging is traffic solutions that can address flow, parking, and overall traffic efficiency. The fourth area seeing a lot of growth is what I would call infrastructure. It’s about being able to look at the quality of the infrastructure and then taking action either to get in front of potential failures or to get more near real-time feedback as things like infrastructure breaks down so that decision-makers can fix those systems. Finally, there’s a lot of excitement around how we can bring solutions to public safety. I’m sure you’re familiar with how AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority are building FirstNet—a nationwide communications platform dedicated to public safety. The collaboration with the FirstNet Authority gives us not only a great opportunity to connect these responders through their smartphones but also to bring together a range of IoT solutions that can help them perform their mission-critical tasks and better accomplish their mission.

With FirstNet, we’re focused on everything from connecting first responders’ vehicles to devices to connecting the first responders themselves through wearable technology—body cams, sensors (e.g. heart rate in dangerous environments)—to drone technologies to enable first responders to smart city infrastructure in order to react effectively to crises.

Here’s another example of the opportunity we see to support the needs of first responders. We have a good relationship with a company called ShotSpotter. Using our digital infrastructure nodes and their software, we’re able to identify a gunshot that has happened in the city and to pass that information directly to police so that they can take immediate action. More and more of these kinds of sensors are being deployed to connect first responders with critical public safety information. Those are some of the major smart city verticals in which we see momentum.

From a citizen engagement perspective, more and more cities are wanting to make sure that, at the end of the day, they’re providing the services and the capabilities to their citizens to have a great place to live. They’re also very concerned about the digital divide. They want to ensure that we’re able to provide all citizens with these new technologies and capability sets. We’re working very closely with cities across the US and Mexico to address the range of IoT solutions that they want to provide to their citizens.

EC: Let’s go back to FirstNet. When working with these different cities, does having that FirstNet contract and being a provider for that service give you an advantage? I imagine that the contract is beneficial when building those private-public partnerships, or while attempting to access infrastructure in cities in which you may not have previously had a lot of input. Do you see that FirstNet collaboration expanding your ability to spread into territories where previously you weren’t as strong?

CP: Absolutely. We see the FirstNet relationship as a game changer for AT&T. We’ve signed up over 3600 agencies across the country. That number continues to grow. Working to help the first responders and build out this network platform to truly help them to communicate when lives are on the line offers us a great opportunity to continue to expand our relationship with these cities, their first responders—and also, candidly, not just with the first responders, but also with their families. FirstNet gives us the opportunity to grow while also providing best-in-class services—and then additionally to expand our relationship with other cities and their citizens.

EC: As part of FirstNet, are you installing additional hardware? Is it more of a segmentation at the software layer of how the services are delivered? Or is it a combination of new hardware infrastructure that’s dedicated to a FirstNet network that’s air-gapped from everything else? Is it a mixture of both?

CP: We have the right to use 20 MHz of high-quality Band 14 spectrum nationwide as part of our public-private partnership with the FirstNet Authority, and we’re working to build additional cell coverage within that spectrum. We’ve also taken our existing LTE network deployments and enabled FirstNet on those as well. In other words, we began giving FirstNet subscribers prioritized access to all AT&T LTE bands. Now we are adding additional capacity through new cell sites and we also built a physically separate, dedicated core network just for FirstNet subscriber’s traffic.

In terms of capacity, our customers are going get a better experience. Every time we touch a cell site, we’re lighting up all the spectrum that we have available. The goal over the next five years is to complete our nationwide network. It’s going to cover areas that we may not have covered historically. We’ll also provide a full suite of enhanced services through the dedicated FirstNet App Catalog that we’ve created just for first responders, which can ride on top of the network. And we’re introducing a range of new IoT solutions on top of those dedicated applications, which can give priority and preemption to our first responders so that they can do their jobs effectively in emergency situations.

EC: That’s great. As someone who lives in DC and was born in NYC, I remember the difficult times after 9/11 when no one could communicate because the cell networks were overwhelmed. It’s great to know that people who need access to communications will have it through FirstNet.

CP: That’s really the history of how this all started.

3. “Video-as-a-Sensor Technology Will Enhance IoT Data Insights”

EC: Another thing that’s interesting is this video-as-a-sensor or video-as-a-service technology that will be enabled by the high bandwidth communications layer that you and the other cellular providers are deploying.

CP: Near-real-time imagery combined with near-real-time data provides a 3-dimensional view of a business’s assets and processes. Companies and cities that adopt video sensors as part of their IoT strategy will be better equipped to improve their operations, save time and money, and increase public safety. Expect surveillance-as-a-service and inspection-as-a-service models to gain traction, and look out for a new wave of multi-purpose IoT devices that include cellular-enabled cameras.

EC: What will be the impacts of this pivot toward video-as-a-sensor? It seems like there are good and bad potential outcomes. What are your thoughts?

CP: I like to use this phrase: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video or camera is worth a hundred sensors. You can really derive much richer information from an image or a video than you can from individual sensors.

Think about this through two different lenses. Obviously, we can create video infrastructure for live-streaming video and near real-time video analytics, from which we can generate actionable insights. You could use this infrastructure in cities for traffic monitoring, to count the amount of pedestrians in a certain area, and/or to identify crime hotspots that may require immediate action. Video streaming can provide a whole range of opportunities for surveillance solutions.

The flip side is equally interesting. I’ll call it inspection-as-a-service. Anything that requires regular inspection can now be inspected using video or still cameras, obviating the need for routine physical inspections. Here are a few examples.

At our IoT Foundry in Plano, Texas, a company came to us with an analog gas metering system. It was going to cost them thousands of dollars (per meter) to convert the metering system into a digital solution. So, we took a camera and pointed it at the dials on the meter. Every minute, the camera took a picture. We then created a digital representation of the analog dial, and we and imported that digitized dial into our platform so that you could see at every minute what pressure the meter displayed. Our solution was a very cheap, and it gave the company near real-time metering information without them having to overhaul their physical meters.

Now put yourself in that company’s shoes. Anytime you’d have had to dispatch someone to get a regular reading, you can now install cameras and get that reading much more efficiently. You could even go a step further and take those images of the meter dial, process the information locally, and only in the event that there’s a change would you need to send the image back across your network. In other words, you can use edge processing to determine how important the information you derive from a given reading is. Then, your device can take action based on how important and how dense that information is before sending it across the network.

Here’s another good example of how video can improve inspection processes. AT&T has to inspect our own cell sites annually. In the past, we’d have to climb each and every one of those towers. We’ve now transitioned completely to a drone inspection approach. We fly a drone with a camera on it over the site. The drone sends a near real-time video feed of what it’s actually seeing down to the inspector on the ground. We then climb only those towers that require specific attention.

There’s a whole range of inspection and maintenance solutions that cameras improve. And there are also numerous opportunities around drone surveillance and live video in general as well.

EC: The whole idea of using video or stills to take pictures of analog gauges is really interesting. It’s a much easier and less costly integration. You can just leverage the existing infrastructure and add a new type of sensor to it, generating all the information you need. You can run computer vision APIs against it to extract all the data, layer on the metadata, and perform useful analytics on it.

CP: These IoT solutions often start off as a retrofit to existing infrastructure. You can then build additional capability sets into that infrastructure as you do future deployments. This is a great way to move these analog businesses forward with much lower investment.

Another exciting solution we demoed at the recent AT&T Summit here in Dallas was taking a cooler, pointing a video camera toward the cooler’s shelving, and then using video analytics to ask questions such as, ‘How full are these shelves?’, ‘Is the right product on the right shelf in the configuration you want?, and ‘Is a competitor’s product being sold in your coolers/space?’ Great retail applications could emerge through using a camera on something that hasn’t traditionally been instrumentalized, providing the user with real-time insights into what your point of distribution looks like.

4. “We Definitely Want You to Think of Us as Much More Than an Enabler”

EC: Do you see AT&T being an enabler of IoT solutions, or are you more interested in developing end-to-end solutions for businesses directly? Will you will provide ‘IoT in a box’, if you will, to customers, particularly on the enterprise side?

CP: We offer a complete end-to-end capability set for IoT. We can act as a full system integrator, pulling together the entire ecosystem to do a deployment—domestically and globally. We also offer expertise at all levels of the IoT stack, so we already do offer ‘IoT in a box’ for the developer community.

We pull together hardware modules, connectivity, our data and applications platforms, and our security solutions so that a developer can take our solution set and start building an IoT system easily. We’ve created dedicated IoT device certification facilities where we work closely with device manufacturers to help them get their devices certified for our networks. We also work with manufacturers to help them build out different hardware components based on emerging opportunities within specific use cases or verticals.

We’ve got a whole set of platforms that we created to empower companies to extract data from endpoints and to take action based upon those data sets, either through our in-house analytics or by piping that data into their preferred cloud environments. We’ve created complete end-to-end solutions in verticals such as fleet management and asset tracking, just to name a few.

We recently announced a really exciting program that we call the ‘Asset Management Operations Center’. Our operations center certifies a wide range of different devices that work on our networks. As a customer, you can go into that center and define what you need to know about your asset—for example, say you want to know its location, its temperature, or any other information that’s important to your business. Our operations center will then show you the different devices with which you can address those needs. You can choose whichever devices match your needs and have them shipped to you. Out of the box, those devices will automatically show up on a map, visualizing where those assets are located and any other data that’s relevant to you. We also provide the various data sets that we’re drawing from these devices. You can get that full end-to-end solution from us.

We’ve probably built out nearly 20 different end-to-end solution sets across all of the different verticals that we support. However, you can also work with us to take any component of those solution sets along the way. We’ve also created an entire professional services organization, which enables us to help you create, design, and launch IoT solutions. On the other hand, you can also completely outsource your entire IoT operation to us and we can take care of everything, including IoT security. We’ve been at this for a long time.

We definitely want you to think of us as much more than an enabler. If you just want AT&T connectivity, we can give it to you, but we can also do a lot more. We really pride ourselves on being able to do this not just domestically but worldwide. We’re one of the world’s leaders in helping companies connect their solutions all over the world. For example, we recently announced a project with Caterpillar that spans more than 155 different countries. We’re working to connect their machinery around the entire globe. We’re proud to service the entire IoT solutions stack on a global scale.

EC: That’s fantastic. I didn’t really realize that you’re all-in on IoT at every angle including professional services, end-to-end solutions, and obviously connectivity as well. That’s great to hear.