AT&T Gets Into Supply Chain Business

Company building and managing RFID for use in global operations


AT&T announced customer trials of a managed radio frequency identification (RFID) service it intends to deploy in the future, officials announced Tuesday.

The 90-day trials, which will begin in early 2006, will determine whether Ma Bell can effectively act as a broker for managed RFID services, laying down the infrastructure and deploying the service with two to five customers.

"Today, most RFID applications are designed for inventory and asset tracking," Hossein Eslambolchi, AT&T Labs CTO and president, said in a statement. "The goal is to eventually have RFID on every item in the supply chain, which will usher in a new wave of object-to-object communication and collaboration."

AT&T isn't the only telecom to look into the possibilities of managed RFID services. The consulting arm of U.K.-based British Telecom (BT) is working with Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) on a joint venture to provide a managed RFID service to retailer Marks & Spencer.

Officials said some of its customers have been using the company's IP backbone and services to develop a homegrown RFID program of their own, but a service provided by the company would take the provisioning and deployment out of company hands.

Rather than provide storage, security, hardware and software -- not to mention the expertise to put it all together -- AT&T will install the RFID infrastructure themselves and manage the technology.

RFID is a technology with a lot of promise to improve supply-chain economics, but has all but disappeared from the national tech radar in recent times.

The hoopla over the technology reached a high point in late 2003, when Wal-Mart officials told its top 100 suppliers they must provide RFID tags on all its cases and pallets.

Reports of theoretical RFID abuses then started percolating, such as the Pentagon using RFID tags to keep tabs on citizens and a host of other privacy issues.

But software and hardware vendors have been keeping up with the technology. Sun and Oracle have been busily testing the technology.

Christine Spivey Overby, principal analyst at research firm Forrester, said in a statement that the RFID industry needs an honest broker to maintain RFID systems. Telcos like AT&T can also bring a wealth of knowledge to the table.

"Telcos have stacks of experience in handling large volumes of business-critical data, and they know highly distributed networking better than most," she noted.

(c) 2005 Jupitermedia Corp.