We traveled to Dallas to talk with the carrier about the IoT opportunity.

Kris Blackmon, Head of Channel Communities

April 18, 2019

9 Min Read
5G and IoT

Almost 19 years ago, Matt Palmer joined AT&T as a district manager in Michigan and northwest Ohio. Back then, AT&T was switches and routers, landlines and broadband. No one could have anticipated that in less than two decades, the company would be leading the field in development and deployment of mobility solutions that existed then only in the realm of science fiction. And while a few AT&T agents may have been building cutting-edge solutions out of the carrier’s tech and reselling them to customers, the notion that partners themselves would be innovating hand in hand with AT&T on the front lines of business technology wasn’t a common one.

Today, Palmer leads mobility product marketing for the AT&T Business channel called Partner Exchange. Unlike the Alliance channel, which operates on a “sell with” model by selling AT&T resources directly, Exchange partners take on all the tier-one responsibilities. They get co-branding, but they have to build their own bundles. And Palmer has been telling these partners for years that if they aren’t betting big on internet-of-things (IoT) solutions, they’re missing out.


AT&T’s Matt Palmer

“It’s time to develop your strategy, dedicate your time and resources, carve your niche so you don’t miss this hockey-stick growth curve,” Palmer cautions partners. “We have some solution providers that were on the front edge of this. That have carved out their niches, have multiple solutions in market, are doing really, really well. Others are coming along, going, ‘OK, you’ve been telling us this for a while and now we’re recognizing that it’s still early in the game, but we need to get in.'”

We traveled to Dallas this week to see the latest and greatest solutions coming out of AT&T’s cutting-edge IoT Foundry, and talked with Palmer about what’s taking some partners so long to jump on the IoT bandwagon, how AT&T is helping solution providers conquer the connected devices market, and how 5G is going to change everything.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Channel Partners: Companies like AT&T and publications like Channel Partners have been telling agents and solution providers for years that they have to get into IoT, but it feels like a lot of partners are waiting for well-defined use cases and easy install packages before they make that investment. How far are we from being able to “plug and play” IoT?

Matt Palmer: A lot of folks want “IoT in a box.” It exists inasmuch as we’ve been able to do things like Fleet Complete by AT&T to resell. We can get you fleet asset management with the devices that are approved with lots of different sensors you can add onto them. It’s got the connectivity, and it’s got a payment class they can offer. We’ve taken another version with a connected car from GM — there’s a whole fleet solution out there with the telematics and everything. We’ve made it so if they come across a fleet GM customer, and there are millions of them out there, they can handle that.

But in general, “IoT in a box” is a fallacy. It doesn’t truly exist. Even though we have defined verticals, when you get in there, each customer’s needs are …

… highly customizable and you’ve got to build that skill set and have those resources identified to be able to identify and customize based upon the individual customer need.

CP: A lot of partners seem to want to develop formal IoT initiatives with customers, but somehow just never get them off the ground. Where do you think the disconnect is?

MP: A lot of folks say they’re intending to do something — “I’m fixing to do it.” But did they go ahead and do it? Where did they get lost? That’s where with our partners, we’ve connected them in enabled IoT professional services with solution providers. So we know there’s a pretty complex equation, from the idea of defining the problem we need to solve to how to get through to certified devices, and what’s your data connectivity, what’s the platform you’re managing these devices on, what are you going to do with that data and analytics and all of that. We want [our partners] to figure out how much of that do you have filled in? If you don’t want to be part of that percentage that wanted to get an IoT solution going and didn’t, we can get you with the right resources. We can figure out where [you are].

Say you’re having a problem getting a device certification. We could get a resource and do a statement of work and get you through the device certification process. We have over 3,000 certified devices that are perfectly good for our network, that customers can plug into to help to find their solution. Whatever kind of sensor, whatever they’re looking for, there [are] already over 3,000 of them in there.

Or, for example, we had a partner that built a customized solution. They got it done; they celebrated. “We finally did it! It works! It’s awesome!” Then they stop and go, “We don’t know how to get this to scale. We’re not sure how to do that.” And so they came in and we worked with them them, and now they’re in over an 18-month deployment period right now.

CP: So they understood the technology and could make it work, but there was a business challenge there. That sounds like a classic channel partner problem: how to erase the static between the tech conversation and the business conversation.

MP: There are a lot of cool things you can do with a whole bunch of sensors, but what’s the ROI on it? Does it significantly impact your bottom line from a cost reduction? Does it help you generate revenue? Just avoid theft [and] improve your customer experience that you put a value on. What is that ROI on that solution and is it really worth doing at that point? So I think it’s a combination of clearly defining the problem you’re trying to solve, and then insuring you’ve got the buy-in between the leadership support and the analysis that it’s going to be worth the return investment.

CP: Let’s talk about security and compliance, because that’s really all anyone in the channel is talking about right now: that managed security piece. How do you help partners navigate both sides of that? Both making sure they’re complying with regulatory conditions and then also making sure they’re staying as secure as possible and safe-guarding as much as possible?

MP: It depends upon the vertical and where they’re going, because we’re enabling them as our end customer. But then when they bundle that solution and go to the market — say they’re in healthcare vertical. They need to have expertise on their staff that understands all about HIPAA and everything else, to understand the space they’re getting into, understand that municipality by municipality that the exact requirements can vary.

Behind the scenes, it’s the customized piece that we can provide them through professional services depending upon their unique solution, but then the other piece that we really focus on, in that solution as partners, how secure is your endpoint? What threat detection and …

… alert monitoring do you have in place to know if something happens at that endpoint? How often are you reading the data? Where’s the data being stored? How often are you running the analytics on that? What are your customer requirements? What’s allowed to connect? And just helping them from the secure networking and securing end points, to make sure they’re secure that way.

Outside of that, when they’re in their specific vertical, that piece is on them because they’re building that bundle solution based upon being in that health-care vertical — they gotta have that expertise there. We have folks that play in there, that resource is available, but … the level of data will determine whether that’s just helping them with that solution or going to a more custom professional services statement of work.

CP: Look into your crystal ball for me. What are you really excited to see impact the solutions your partners are developing in the next year or two?

MP: In IoT specifically for us, I’m excited about our space because the growth in wireless WAN is that — well, I don’t know if it’s politically correct to call it the “gateway drug to IoT,” but that growth in wireless WAN has been phenomenal. We’ve had a lot of traditional wired players adopting a practice or getting with a partner [where] that’s all they do, and they’re learning that practice.

So as we’re seeing more and more adoption in the channel of people going wireless, the buzz on 5G is insane. They just, they all get it. They’re like, “The ultra low latency, ultra high speeds, enhanced security, I mean, this is crazy. Why do I need a dedicated circuit there in some cases, when really it’s a cost avoidance? I got a quote; it would cost me a million dollars to run fiber here. Do I need to spend a million dollars to run fiber or is 5G going to offer me that type of speed connectivity that I need?”

So they’re excited [about] the opportunity with 5G and all that’s going to offer from a connectivity prospective. And they’re now embracing the idea that we were telling them five years ago: You need to get mobility, fact is now more and more folks are coming on board on that side too.

CP: I’ve been hearing about 5G for so long, I almost think it’s never going to happen.

MP: AT&T publicly said, “We will have a nationwide 5G network next year.” So, they went on the record saying that. Clearly, we’re starting from zero connections and we want to load the network quickly. I think IDC quoted by 2020 there will be 91 million cellular 5G connections in IoT. So, it’s going to explode quickly.

We’re excited because we’ve got the network, we’ve got the partners. We’re going to be a part of that growth. That’s exciting; that’s another S-curve in our industry and a great opportunity. More partners are getting engaged and they’re asking what does this mean.

So that’s 5G connectivity, 5G IoT — and they just want to know what that looks like. “How do I play on the edge?” So I’m excited because our solution products are so creative. They’re trusted advisers with their end-user customers.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Blackmon

Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions

Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.

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