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AT&T Pledges $500M Upgrades, Wi-Fi Too

AT&T said it would spend $500 million on a range of next generation networking services for businesses, including corporate intranet access via Wi-Fi hotspots it plans to install in hotels and airports around the country.

During the "SuperComm 2003" telecommunications conference in Atlanta, AT&T's Chairman and CEO David Dorman unveiled a number of improvements the company plans as part of its half billion investment, all of them designed to "raise the industry" bar on customer service.

Included on the list of improvements is a plan to deploy wireless networks that would help customers access their corporate networks from hotels and airports via the popular WiFi, or the 802.11 wireless networking protocol.

The announcement is part of an almost daily flurry of announcements about wireless networking services to businesses and consumers, as the popularity of Wi-Fi spreads.

AT&T is also one of the investors in Cometa, a new company launched last December to provide wholesale wireless Internet access services to businesses.

But AT&T executives said the $500 million investment is about more than Wi-Fi access for business travelers. The investment is about improving the customer experience, they added, such as simplifying contracts, slashing provisioning time, improving billing accuracy, rolling out powerful electronic servicing capabilities, and linking customers' computers directly into AT&T's network-support systems.

During a keynote address at the conference, Dorman said AT&T has been steadily raising the "industry bar" in order to improve customers' experience and deliver next generation networking services.

"From ordering and provisioning to maintenance and billing, nearly all aspects of customer experience in the telecom industry have been broken for more than 20 years," he said.

In addition to the attention-catching news about Wi-Fi hotspots for corporate customers, the New York-based AT&T said that within a year, its Frame Relay customers would be able to implement network-based Internet Protocol Virtual Private Networks . Customers will be able to overlay the next generation networking services by using AT&T's new "BusinessDirect" Web-based tools that help customers self-provision services within one hour.

AT&T officials said the latest investment news comes as the company is already in the midst of consolidating its legacy networks into a single global IP infrastructure (a Multi Protocol Label Switching or MPLS-based network over an intelligent optical core) by 2005.

The company is building out its IP network and beefing up the underlying security, as well as messaging and directory capabilities so that customers can run major enterprise applications from different vendors on one integrated networking environment, officials said. The change is a major shift from the multi-platform architecture involved in traditional networking.

AT&T said it would enable WiFi access to its business Internet and VPN tunneling services in order to help business travelers connect to their corporate applications and secure data from multiple public locations.

Dorman also said by the end of this summer, AT&T would offer customers a simplified contract structure that lets customers order up AT&T services on a single master services bill.

In addition, the company pledged to cut negotiating cycle times on service agreements with customers as part of its half billion dollar pledge; The Frame Relay customers will be able to upgrade to network-based IP-VPN within a year;

Other new developments in the pledge include "e-capabilities," which uses the company's "BusinessDirect" portal for management of enterprise systems, which includes what it called enhanced sales and servicing tools that help business customers order, manage and monitor their networking services in real time.

"By directly linking to our customer's automated systems and processes, AT&T is taking a major leap forward from the traditional customer/vendor paradigm to a strategic and trusted partner that helps a company ensure business-flow continuity, manage network complexity, realize higher returns on investment and improve productivity," Dorman said in his prepared remarks for the conference.