AT&T's Connected Car Strategy Focuses on Building Great Partnerships

AT&T attributes its leading position in the connected car market to the partnerships it's building. The latest of these is with Volvo.  

NEW YORK—As media day at the New York International Auto Show got under way, AT&T announced that Volvo's 2015 model year vehicles, arriving this May, will be equipped with its wireless technology.

Unlike AT&T's January announcement with Audi, there was no mention of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) this time. Glenn Lurie, AT&T's president of emerging devices, said the details of the deal are still being worked out.

Plus, "HSPA+ [Evolved High Speed Packet Access] is still very competitive in terms of speeds and latency, and some folks are thinking that may be a place to get started," said Lurie.

Alongside January's Audi announcement, AT&T said that it will this summer begin allowing people to add a vehicle data plan to any smartphone or tablet plan.

"We view the car as another device, whether it's a smartphone, a tablet or another device in your life [and we're ready to support it]," Lurie told eWEEK, taking a break from the show. "Most of the [in-car] apps will be 'bursting, not thirsty,' as I like to say. When you get into 4G hotspots, of course, that's more like a smartphone, a little more of a challenge. But we learned a lot from those early smartphone days" when the iPhone was exclusive to AT&T.

Still, pricing, and how people will sign up for in-car wireless services, are still to be determined.

"It all depends on the automotive partner," said Lurie. "One of the fun parts about this is we're a support mechanism. We want to be the best partner on the planet to the automotive OEMs. At the same time, they get to decide how they want to compete."

While horsepower, fuel efficiency and good looks still sell cars, Lurie says he hopes people will eventually also begin considering the embedded module that's on board.

"The technology is going to be one of the reasons people decide whether to buy or not buy a car," said Lurie. "They're going to decide on what technology meets their needs. We're seeing 30, 40 percent of people saying they're going to choose a car that's connected. This is now here."

While cars will include a module from the automaker's technology partner, drivers will also bring into the car—on their smartphones or tablets—their wireless carrier of choice.

"To be the best partner [to automakers], we need to offer the best experience to their customers. It needs to work with what's brought into the car," said Lurie. "The key here is to make the automobile more safe, simple, easier to use and not intimidating."

Drive Studio—a garage meets developer lab in Atlanta, and another January announcement—is also winning AT&T points with its partners.

"It's been incredible. More than excited, our partners are like, 'Wait, you just spent millions building an innovation center for cars?' We want to show them we feel this is a big part of our future," said Lurie. "We want to be able to tear things apart and build new things. ... [It's tremendous that] we're delivering and executing for them and they're putting their trust in us."

Each major U.S. carrier has made announcements around the connected car market, but AT&T, for now, is dominating. When asked about how T-Mobile likes to nudge at AT&T in the smartphone space, and how AT&T may soon have its connected car rivals up close in its rearview mirror, Lurie responded, "This is one of those spaces it's very hard to nudge us in. It's one of those spaces that when you win, you've kind of really won."

Plus, building heart share never hurts.

"People may think about how great our network is performing and, who knows," smiled Lurie, "they may think it makes sense to have their next phone with AT&T."

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