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NTV Live Keynote: Ralph de la Vega, AT&T

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“I think IPTV is the new TV,” Ralph de la Vega opened his keynote by saying. AT&T wants to connect people to everything in their lives — music, business, entertainment — and do it on the go, de la Vega explained. With countless iPhones visible in the crowd, the audience was interested in what the group president of Regional Telecommunications and Entertainment had to say.


De la Vega stressed that the new AT&T, with its current capacity, is really a very young company, only 10 months old from its merger with Cingular and Bell South. And they are growing. According to de la Vega, AT&T currently has 120 million customers in the U.S. — 65 million wireless, 63 million wired, 14 million broadband, and 2 million television. They are growing their IPTV business by 10,000 customers per week through its AT&T U-Verse. He estimates that there will be 38 million IPTV customers by 2018.

De la Vega cited AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson: “It’s the customer’s world. We’re just living in it.” And video is what the customers want, he said. “IDC said that 7 percent of the customer traffic was on streaming video.” And this is because of mobile devices like the AT&T-enabled iPhone, de la Vega explained. Of all iPhone users, 51 percent have watched YouTube, 46 percent watched music video, 34 percent have watched news on their iPhone.

De la Vega articulated some of the challenges that the mobile entertainment industry will have to overcome. “The first big challenge is that this mass market has splintered,” de la Vega explained. Connecting the right content to the right devices on the right networks will be the way to make this challenge into a huge opportunity. Disengagement is another big obstacle. How do you get the customer’s attention when they are using three screens — the PC, the TV, and a mobile device? “Relevancy is the answer.”

We were then treated to a demo of Video Share, a service that allows one-way audio and video transmission. This service is live now, but only from handset to handset. The new functionality they are planning to add will push that video to your TV. It is not a video conference setup but instead is a one-way video share. “I call it ‘See what I’m seeing when I’m talking to you,” de la Vega joked. It would allow a caller with a camera phone to send information, video, and GPS data to an IPTV.

The demo included glimpses of several different applications possible on an IPTV, some useful, some not. The family tracker, while a little Big Brother-esque, was pretty cool. De la Vega showed us his wife’s GPS beacon on the screen — she was out in San Antonio, Texas, shopping. De la Vega also showed us a number of on-demand services like shopping, weather, and flight information. These services are not unique and don’t really yet seem appropriate to be viewed in the living room. The strength AT&T adds is the ability to link content across this triumvirate of screens — the PC, the TV, and the mobile device.

AT&T’s focus on letting content flow across all three device outlets is a very smart move. Instead of dictating which services customers can access from where, customers will be allowed to decide where they want to check their e-mail, where they want to stream video, and where they want to order a pizza.

De la Vega spoke extensively about the primacy of quality content. He played a video at the end enumerating the huge amount of content their online network has built around various sporting and music events. “In order for us to make that vision you saw up there a reality we need to work to license it across all the devices.” Current licensing is very specific and limiting. Streamlining that licensing process will allow consumers to find that content wherever they want and will work to reverse the splintering of the mass market.

De la Vega sees the industry as focusing on three points to push the entertainment industry into the 21st century. Content needs to be accessible on all three screens, it needs to be high definition, and it needs to be high quality. “The new TV is not something we can do alone.” “AT&T 2.0,” as de la Vega described it to chuckles and sighs from the audience, “is looking for partners.”

After his presentation Om buttonholed the telecom exec and got to air his grievances on the slow speeds of U.S. cellular networks. “3G is coming!” de la Vega pleaded. In response to the question of switching from traditional cable service to IPTV, de la Vega explained that AT&T’s marketing has been very successful. “When people see it they buy it.” Adoption rates are not a problem, he claimed. Om conceded but warned him not to limit his BitTorrent bandwidth. In regards to security concerns, de la Vega assured Om that AT&T’s network has a “very secure IP backbone.” Om wrapped up, tapping through his notes on his iPhone, reiterating his hopes for faster mobile networks and passed emceeing responsibilities off to GigaOM’s Surj Patel.