Top 100: AT&T's transformation drives public sector opportunities

As AT&T corporate transforms itself, the public sector business grabs opportunities via FirstNet and the coming wave of 5G technologies.

Like its nearest competitor Verizon, AT&T is a company in motion thanks to a big-ticket media acquisition that recasts itself into more than just a telecommunications provider as the worlds of content and connectivity come together.

Such a converged landscape that blurs what we consume and use with how it travels is the bet AT&T is making at least in its $100 billion acquisition of Time Warner. AT&T’s strategy at the corporate level has three prongs: technology, media and telecommunications.

And the government business is just as much a part of that transformation as the rest of AT&T.

“As the company continues to evolve, the public sector is one of the growth areas that we’re continuing to invest in,” said Xavier Williams, president of AT&T’s global public sector arm. The company ranks No. 19 on the 2019 Top 100 with just under $2 billion in prime contract obligations.

Williams said that since 2013, AT&T has put $145 billion of capital toward its network. That figure includes wireless acquisitions, spectrum purchases and hardware such as fixed infrastructure.

“The technology piece, the telecom piece… it’s center of plate for us in the public sector as we look at our base of clients and try to figure out how we can help them modernize and transform the way government provides services to constituents,” Williams said.

At the center of that is FirstNet: the massive undertaking to build a nationwide broadband communications network for public safety personnel in the U.S.

AT&T won the 25-year project in March 2017 to build out the network dedicated for police, firefighters, emergency medical services and other first responders to use during crisis situations. All 50 states, Washington, D.C. and all five U.S. territories opted into the network by the end of that year.

One year after award, the network core was officially delivered. Fast forward to today: over 7,000 public agencies and at least 600,000 connections are on the FirstNet network. Other federal agencies have also committed to FirstNet including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Coast Guard, and more recently the Navy and Marine Corps.

Williams said FirstNet’s public safety users have the priority on the network, which has a separate core from AT&T’s commercial network.

“When there is a bad event where people need to use the FirstNet infrastructure, we want them to have unencumbered communication. We want them to have pre-emption, we want them to be able to use it in a manner that allows them to communicate seamlessly,” Williams said.

He also offered a glimpse of what the users look for with their devices in hand, plus how AT&T works with others to create an ecosystem that can make FirstNet work better.

“Think about push-to-talk, think about things that a firefighter or a police person would love to have that makes their job and makes their life easier,” Williams said. “There are vendors that are also working with the FirstNet authority to make sure that the ecosystem is set up in a positive manner that’s going to be able to support all the first responders.”

Back to AT&T’s three-pronged strategy that might as well be an allegory for the public sector business itself. If FirstNet is prong one for the Williams-led shop, then the General Services Administration’s next-generation telecommunications contract could be considered prong two.

AT&T is one of nine carriers on the General Services Administration’s potential 15-year, $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions vehicle awarded two years ago, and is one of three so far with the authority-to-operate designation that lets it perform work under that contract.

EIS is essentially a one-stop shop for agencies of all sizes to acquire systems integration and other services that upgrade their telecom and IT environments, but that does not necessarily mean a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Some agencies want to go... zero to 100, where some people want to make it more step-measured and go step-by-step. Either one is fine,” Williams said. “It just depends on what that agency’s appetite is for change.But when you think about modernization (and) transformation, this contract vehicle will enable them to do it.”

That means not just their telecommunications environment but many other core areas of IT modernization like cloud computing and cybersecurity, for example.

One EIS task order out of two that have been disclosed so far has already gone to AT&T: a 13-year pact with a $10 million ceiling from the Railroad Retirement Board. Williams added more task orders “are in play that we’re bidding on” and the flow “is starting to get very steady.”

But those opportunities have been made available to bid at a more deliberate pace than what was expected in the wake of awards of the initial seats.

“When (agencies) are thinking about how they’re going to transform what they do, how they’re modernizing their networks, they’ve been very thoughtful in what they’re doing and the procurements reflect that,“ Williams said.

Now for a third prong in AT&T’s public sector wheelhouse: the coming 5G revolution. To understand what that means for government, it is useful to see what AT&T is doing in the commercial marketplace. AT&T’s 5G network is live in parts of 19 cities and the company expects nationwide coverage by early 2020.

“The best way I heard it described is like moving from a typewriter to a laptop,” Williams said of the shift from 4G to 5G.

That is where AT&T’s corporate investments come into play as well. While 4G networks are primarily based on cell towers, 5G also requires small cell technology and a more dense network with increased fiber coverage because of the spectrum being used.

Williams said AT&has to rebuild its entire network to enable 5G, but that is not uncharted territory.

“We’re built for this… we’ve been in the business of building networks for 140 years,” he said.

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