SOUTHBOUND ON I- 95, NEAR PORTLAND, Maine (
) -- Son, see that big fake pine tree? The 105-foot one with the funny branches? That, my boy, is a cellphone tower. And guess what? Never mind
or the rest of the digital mighty. Whatever dollars will be made on the Web will be made right there.
And they'll probably be made by one of the operators of that giant fake cellphone tree tower thingie:
Yup, son, AT&T.
I realize AT&T doesn't make its digital upside easy to see. Most of its executive huffing and puffing these days is about such blurry things as
, which will "change the way people live, work and play," says Kevin Peterson, senior vice president at AT&T Mobility on the company's website -- meaning, I think, that you'll use your phone to control your house. (You can just feel the millions bleeding out of the company over that one, can't you?)
The real gold of this operation is left to middle management to describe. Tom DeVito, vice president and general manager for AT&T in New York and New Jersey, says in a press release that the operation was turning its old 2G spectrum into spiffy new 3G and 4G services, and that "dedicating more capacity to our advanced wireless networks will help more of our customers in New York City have a better experience overall."
A better experience? That should translate into profits.
The news with this stock is that somehow -- and who knows how -- AT&T has gained the network chops to make its hare-brained, cross-technology mash-up of a network a legit choice. Based on what I have seen in more than six months of direct testing on three continents with a dozen devices, AT&T's nutty GSM/HSDPA/LTE/2G/3G/4G network actually ... gasp ... works!
Unlike Facebook, AT&T is easy for users to like.
Being a sleeper-quality data access provider is only part of the story. AT&T has also cracked the ease-of-use factor in staying connected at home and work. The best example of what this operation is capable of is called
, which brokers the connection between a PC and the Web.
It is, without question, the easiest-to-use network communications tool I have ever touched. PC, Mac, anything. And it implies that the company has developed the needed deft software touch to service vast numbers of finicky Web users -- a touch that gives it an edge over such rivals as
AT&T plays nice in the global sandbox.
AT&T's multinetwork approach yields yet another benefit: growth in lucrative overseas markets. Because its devices have to handle such a crazy-quilt network here in the U.S., they can handle the same issues abroad, where networks are
crazy. Everything I've used over the past six months in Venice, Amsterdam and Delhi on AT&T and its roaming partners has revealed an impressive network tool -- and that includes
That's right: High-margin, international roaming sales are a reasonable assumption for AT&T down the road.
AT&T now the VHS of access providers.
The investor big-think is as straight as it gets: It's reasonable to assume AT&T has evolved to where it offers a good enough network experience, a broad enough range of devices and enough coverage domestically and overseas to become the type of midmarket success story that offers lots of services to lots of users. And makes lots of money.
I am not saying AT&T's network will ever be as fast or as flashy as legit uberheros such as Verizon. It probably will never be as flexible as Sprint or as cheap as T-Mobile. And voice coverage is another story. I have had plenty of "C_n u hear me n_w" moments with AT&T's less-than-perfect call quality.
But the view from here, zipping home on Interstate 95 using an AT&T modem, is that investors are looking at a rare bright spot in today's grim digital slum. As the Internet economy deflates over the next five years, stuck in the no-win race to offer "content" and "experiences," core data-service providers that can command a reasonable fee no matter how little a bit of information on the Web is worth will emerge as a safe harbor.
I wish it were not so, since technology is my life. But content did not turn out to be king -- access tools such as cellphone towers did. And lo and behold if the new lord of those towers is not frumpy old AT&T.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.