AT&T Forges Ahead in Its Quest for the Holy Grail

SAN FRANCISCO (04/28/2000) - AT&T Wireless Inc.'s IPO - the biggest in U.S. history - was a huge financial victory for the company. But it's just one step in the telco giant's master plan.

AT&T raked in more than $10.62 billion on the IPO, but that money won't solve all of the company's problems. Like all telecommunications companies, AT&T is desperately trying to turn its aging, outdated networks into a high-speed Internet platform. Soon it will take the wraps off its secretive Internet platform project, code-named OneComm, which would mark the first phase in the creation of a single, unified platform for all AT&T services.

This would be a step toward what has become the Holy Grail of networking: unified messaging. Shane Robinson, the company's new chief scientist, and his team are responsible for tying together e-mail, instant messages, voice-mail and other messaging services. Robinson says he hopes that voice-to-text technology would make it possible for users to get voice-mail via e-mail and vice versa. If AT&T could pull this off, it would become a formidable competitor to Web-based startups such as Onebox that are trying to bring unified messaging to the Internet.

One might think that the telecom industry - the Net's foundation - would be among the most Internet-savvy of businesses. But though you can order cars, books or just about any type of goods and services online, you still can't order phone or data services online. That's mostly because, if you looked under the hood of a big telco like AT&T, you'd see a tangled mess of systems that don't interconnect, that can't talk to each other and that have antiquated customer-support systems.

"(Traditional) networks have evolved for so many years that they are pretty confusing," says Inder Gopal, VP of Internet architecture at AT&T Labs. "They are not modularized, don't have clean interfaces, and customer data is stored in, like, 16 different places." AT&T's modernization attempt will take years to pull off, but fueled by the new wireless spin-off, it could reshape that tangle of unrelated networks into a coherent whole. The project dates back to 1995, when AT&T brought together a small group of researchers in its research lab to figure out how to drag the company onto the Internet. The group was headed by Dado Vrsalavic, who helped get AT&T WorldNet, the company's dialup Internet service, online. The group came up with an Internet platform called Geoplex - but not long after its completion, the team disbanded.

"The last group of guys AT&T had working on this included a lot of academics who wanted to fix the world," says Hilary Mine, an analyst with Probe Research.

"It's great to have big-picture thinkers like that, but then you need someone who can make it work in the real world. My big question for the Geoplex people was always, 'Great, but what's the business model?' " AT&T thinks that Shane Robinson is the guy who can make it work. Robinson, the president of Internet technology and development for AT&T, comes to AT&T from Cadence, where he was responsible for putting together giant software projects. "This is something that's been percolating within AT&T for a while," he says. "Rather than force [AT&T units] to move to this new platform, we're tailoring it for them." One drawback to the unified model is certain to be security concerns.

"Who controls the data? Where will it reside?" asks Rolf De Vegt, an analyst with Renaissance Worldwide. "Security-minded companies won't want to give up control to AT&T." And it will be a long time before AT&T can truly move all its businesses, which range from wireless to phone to data services, to the new Internet platform. The company is still supporting networks that are decades old, and those aren't going away anytime soon. But a $10 billion IPO should cover a lot of network rehab.

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