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AT&T wants to get into the wireless broadcast video biz

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson teases a service that would simultaneously deliver video to many people. It sounds a lot like what Qualcomm tried to do a few years ago.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at Mobile World Congress 2013
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at Mobile World Congress 2013
Stephen Shankland/CNET

AT&T wants to get into the wireless show business.

The company is working on technology that would enable it to broadcast video directly to its customers via its cellular network, CEO Randall Stephenson said during an investor conference on Tuesday. He said the service could come in the next three years.

If the service sounds familiar, that's because Qualcomm attempted to do the same thing with its ill-fated MediaFlo service. Qualcomm used a thin layer of spectrum to create a broadcast video service with multiple live channels that could be picked up with compatible phones. The broadcasters are attempting to do the same with local television channels through its Dyle service.

Dyle requires you to plug in an adapter to pick up a handful of broadcast channels. It hasn't been successful. Dyle

MediaFlo was an embarrassing failure for Qualcomm. There has been little to no adoption of the Dyle service, suggesting little interest in live, broadcast video. So it's curious that Stephenson would tease such a service.

But Stephenson said that video is driving traffic, and he believes that in some cases, there will be a need to broadcast video to a wide number of people, rather than have individuals access the same live video multiple times. By broadcasting it in one channel, it removes the traffic caused by multiple simultaneous requests for that video.

"There's certain content a large number of people want," Stephenson said. "We're developing a broadcast channel to remove congestion."

History will repeat itself in a way. AT&T intends to use the same thin layer of 700MHz spectrum that Qualcomm employed in its MediaFlo service.

Video was a key theme of Stephenson's chat at the Goldman Sachs conference. He referenced Google Fiber and the Internet giant's push to build fiber-optic networks around the country to deliver faster Internet and video services. He noted that a few years ago, AT&T used to go around to cities asking for permission to build out fiber-optic networks. Now, cities are asking companies like Google. AT&T wants to get in on the same action.

"We'll take one of those too," he said in reference to the attractive terms Austin, Texas, laid out for Google in its request for a fiber network. He added that AT&T would connect more cities to fiber.

On the wireless end, Stephenson reiterated the competitive nature of the industry and noted that the company was facing pressure on the lower end. That was the incentive to do the Leap Wireless acquisition.

"You can assume we will be very aggressive on that end of the market using (Leap's) Cricket brand," he said. "I can't wait to launch the Cricket brand nationwide."

He reiterated that he expects the Leap deal to close in the first quarter. Leap's Cricket arm gives AT&T a prepaid business that helps it better compete against Sprint's twin prepaid businesses, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, as well as T-Mobile's no-contract plans and MetroPCS prepaid arm.