AT&T's goal is to stay ahead of tech curve

AT&T's new technology chief says his goal can be summed up in five words: "More bandwidth in more places."

"You also have to be good at getting (consumers) on and off the network," says John Donovan, formerly with Internet security giant VeriSign. That's a tall order. About 1 billion devices connect daily to AT&T's networks: local, long-distance, broadband and wireless. The number is rising thanks to America's fascination with mobile — smartphones, laptops and more.

"It took 100 years to get 1 billion devices on the network," he says. "It will take less than 10 years to get the next billion."

AT&T is a beast. The Dallas-based telecom has local phone operations in 22 states; "Internet Protocol" (IP) networks that carry voice, data and video in more than 140 countries; and a long-distance backbone that traverses the USA.

Undersea fiber-optic cables used for trans-Atlantic communications? Check that box, too. It's also building an advanced video network that offers a circus of converged services.

AT&T is also the USA's No. 1 wireless cellphone carrier, with about 73 million customers.

Staying ahead of the technology curve is a constant challenge, Donovan says. "Do I feel good about where I am right now? Yes. Do I feel I have a long-term solution? No. But it's something I'm watching every day."

One of Donovan's biggest headaches: the copper network. Used for decades to provide traditional land-line phone service, the network is creaky and expensive to maintain.

As more people cut the cord and go wireless, there are fewer people to spread those "fixed" costs among. (Verizon and other carriers have the same problem.)

AT&T is considering a range of technology solutions. At the top of the list: "WiMax," an advanced wireless technology that can handle voice, data and video. WiMax is also cheap to install and maintain.

Donovan says WiMax could come in handy in some U.S. markets, particularly rural areas where it's becoming prohibitively expensive to maintain copper.

Also under consideration: femtocells. The technology, which relies on miniature wireless receivers, can significantly boost the performance of in-home broadband connections.

To the untrained eye, Donovan's approach might seem like a hodgepodge — a little bit of this and a little bit of that. His affinity for marginal technologies such as WiMax — popular in Third World countries where telecom infrastructure is spotty — also doesn't seem like a natural fit.

Donovan, who was personally recruited by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, sort of smiles at that. "Randall didn't bring in an outsider just to enhance the status quo," he says.