NXTcomm Tuesday keynote: Stephenson knows his velocity

AT&T Chairman, CEO and President Randall Stephenson was a few bland comments into his keynote speech at NXTcomm in Las Vegas Tuesday when he asked a provocative question of NXTcomm attendees: “What business are we in?”

It is a question—and a concern—on the minds of many who are at this show as telcos propel themselves further into TV and mobile broadband businesses, and further away from the traditional landline telephony business. I don’t know that Stephenson directly answered the question he proposed, but what he said was that AT&T and others in the telecom industry “are in the business of velocity, providing commercial velocity. And, connectivity is and always has been the foundation for velocity and commercial growth.”

Stephenson noted that 3 billion people could be connected to the Internet worldwide by 2011, and that there are already more than 1 billion devices connected to AT&T’s network today. He essentially reminded the telecom industry that it still is the telecom industry—the backbone supporting all of that connectivity and commerce. That’s a reassuring notion in a time of great change, when carriers are trying to figure out how much of a tether to keep to their traditional identities. The technology and services may change, but the role is not changing all that much, he seemed to suggest. It is also reassuring as network velocity moves faster and farther sooner than many of us expected.

Many companies at the show this week will be talking about 100 Gbps pipes, an innovation that has enjoyed a stunningly quick emergence in recent months. But, velocity has multiple connotations. It is interesting that Stephenson brought up velocity at a time when many broadband service providers are experimenting with usage-based billing for broadband or other measures to help them control and manage broadband traffic on their networks (some would say they are just slowing their velocity). Recent service provider actions to control that velocity may result in Net neutrality laws that will influence how all service providers deliver on that velocity promise.

Velocity may be the core business of the telecom industry, but that velocity, for all the good it will deliver around the world in the years to come, also will have its price.