At large in the cathedral of technology

Christina Appleyard visits the space-age hub of AT&T, once known for its clipped-voice operators, now a geek's dream
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The Independent Online

The highway from New York City to AT&T's headquarters in New Jersey is oddly familiar. It follows the same route as the haunting opening sequences of The Sopranos.

But nothing about the hour or so's drive through that raw, untidy sprawl prepares you for the jaw-dropping uber-tech spectacle of the telecoms giant's Global Network Operations Centre. We were on a high-security tour usually reserved for the company's most-valued clients. As the leading provider of wireless voice and data services in the US, the company now has 72.9 million customers.

AT&T is ranked at 10 in the Fortune 500 list and is quietly becoming a significant presence in the European market. Yet in many European minds much of its corporate image is still tied up with the clipped tones of the operator's voice in old black and white movies. The most recent nostalgic incarnation was the roller-skating operator played by Nicole Kidman in The Changeling.

This visit coincided with the announcement of a five-year deal with Smiths Group, the UK-based technology firm. Smiths is looking to AT&T for a transformation programme that will deliver improved productivity and cost reductions across its five business divisions.

The company expects to achieve annual savings of at least $5m (£3.4m) on its IT and related communications costs. BT was one of the suppliers of these services to Smiths, until now. Services from AT&T will include managed security, hosting, video conferencing, consulting, voice services and remote access for travelling users.

The decision to go with AT&T was not a hard one, says Brian Jones, group chief information officer at Smiths: "Creating a seamless and fit-for-purpose technology platform is critical for the ongoing transformation of Smiths. AT&T brings us the ability to accelerate those changes."

Of course, it is a very long time since AT&T was merely a phone company. Today it has one of the world's most advanced internet-backbone networks, encompassing 863,000 fibre-route miles and 38 internet data centres across the world that serve 97 per cent of the global economy. Everything about its headquarters shouts power.

After the security checks, two huge flush doors slide open to reveal a cathedral-sized space with no windows and a vast sunken pit, which houses a couple of dozen keyboard operators. It is eerily quiet. The walls are full of giant screens of illuminated graphs, which show the communications traffic all over the world. Huge TV screens are permanently tuned to the news channels. Everything is designed so the operators can respond immediately to a nation's needs by balancing and and rerouting traffic and analysing network activity.

On days of high drama, such as the collapse of banks and insurance companies, the place, we were told, buzzes like the Starship Enterprise, making a chilling – but thrilling – spectacle. In any national emergency, it is in this room where key decisions about operating procedures are made.

The following day, we were in the opulent but rather more conventional surroundings of the downtown HQ to attend a very selective unveiling of AT&T's latest technological innovations. The event is hosted by the chief technology officer, John Donovan, and it includes some 25 working models of the magic to come.

It might come as a relief to some to learn that shouting at the TV might soon not only be a legitimate response to the rubbish you're watching but also a cool new game that you can play with your friends and family. It's called CollaboraTV and for my money one of the most exciting possibilities.

The idea is that using the latest interactive TV technology, you can shout or key in your comments and opinions on to the screen. They will pop up on the screens of your friends' television sets, if their TVs are set up to shake hands with yours.

But the project the company is most excited about is called Telepresence. This involves sending live TV pictures from offices all over the world for business-grade video conferencing. Even as a non-geek freak, it was difficult not to be intrigued by the infinite possibilities of this new stuff. Even the pointless ones. I wasn't really persuaded by the Mobile Shopping Assistant – a new way of shopping using a handheld mobile wireless device – which seemed to me to make a tiresome chore into a scarily complicated but still tiresome chore.

But I fervently pray that the speech- recognition remote control allowing you simply to say what you want to watch survives this prototype stage.

The thing that really stays with you after this two-day peek into the techno-heart of corporate America was back at the HQ when our guide pressed his remote control and summoned the archive into a frenzy of zig-zagging graphs. It showed the telephone and IT traffic from New York during 9/11. It was a haunting reminder of the strange and new ways in which our history will one day be told.

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