How has the pandemic impacted AT&T’s line of work?
As everybody knows, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every corner of the globe. It up-ended commerce, closed schools and businesses, shuttered public areas, and disrupted the cadence of everyday life.
It’s also proven that technology, an acknowledged enabler in the best of times, can be a critical lifeline during crisis. As a company, we always talk about our core mission as “creating connections.” Those connections had never been more important. I think it’s fair to say that as the pandemic hit, our customers valued our services more than ever before.
What is an example of an innovation that was spawned from the challenges of the pandemic?
Right away we knew three things had to happen--fast. One, we needed to protect our workforce. Two, we needed to maintain essential operations. Three, we needed to serve our customers.
Orders were pouring in. We had a lot of bandwidth in big, tall office buildings and all that bandwidth needed to go to homes. We immediately launched a virtual Covid-19 Command Center, specifically for businesses, that enabled fast delivery of increased bandwidth, new circuits and what we call unified communications services. We worked around the clock, pulling out all the stops to get the flood of new service requests up and running.
Our employees were all on the front line, keeping customers connected and informed about our services and the things we were able to help with. And through the command center, we supported the critical needs of thousands of those customers to pivot their business so they could continue operations in this new reality. Normally we process one order after another. But now everything had to happen at once. So, using the collaboration tools we sell, we put everybody who would touch the customer in a virtual room—including sales and anyone in any phase of provisioning. Everyone saw requests come in at once, in a virtual environment. Everybody knew what the volumes looked like, and what the turnaround was.
To get the lift we needed, we adapted our automation tools to this new environment. In the first couple of months we came up with over 200 technology innovations to speed processes. From mid-March 2020 through May 2020, we delivered over 16,000 communications service requests for our business customers. Our employees were practicing borderless collaboration to serve our customers. It was amazing. Moving forward, that's going to be business as usual for us.
How were you able to prioritize and handle all the requests, especially those that were so critical at the beginning, like health care and education?
Right out of the gate we focused on first responders, health care, government, and K through 12 education. FirstNet, built by AT&T, was the key enabler. FirstNet is the nationwide, wireless communications platform dedicated to America’s first responders and public safety community. It was born out of the 9/11 Commission recommendations to enhance communications across the entire public safety community and provides a dedicated lane of connectivity when they need it.
There are many examples of FirstNet in action during the pandemic, supporting public safety at quarantine zones, airports, hospitals, testing centers and state and federal emergency operations centers. Plus, we deployed mobile devices and portable cell sites across the nation to support COVID-19 drive-through testing and vaccine distribution centers.
And I need to add--we’ve worked closely with emergency front line workers. It’s been a privilege. Our teamswere proud to help the heroic doctors and police, firefighters, and public safety officials who have worked so hard to save lives.
From a company culture standpoint, when you get together and solve a problem quickly and everyone is invested, how do you maintain focus and engagement?
For us, planning for business continuity is a part of doing business. We run regular practice exercises for hurricanes and earthquakes and other natural disasters. During an emergency maintaining service is critical, otherwise people can’t communicate and coordinate. That's what our network is built to do, restore and recover critical infrastructure to get back up and running. Our teams are always on the ready. For example, when a hurricane hits, we stage ourselves outside the zone, and then we're in with first responders to restore service. If coverage is an issue, we deploy the trucks that have all our wireless superstructure and create hotspots in the middle of the disaster centers.
That being said, with the unprecedented scale of this event, we’ve learned many lessons. One of the most important is how to move faster. We threw out names, ranks, and titles and focused on tasks. When someone had a great idea about how to do something better or faster, it got approved quickly. That approach became a spawning ground for innovation.
What are some examples of how AT&T helped its customers and how that assistance will become a permanent offering for anyone?
Overnight companies were faced with decisions around connectivity, bandwidth, collaboration, home based equipment needs, device management, enabling customer care remotely and, of course, cybersecurity.
Security’s a big deal. Business critical information was moving out of data centers and getting dispersed. How do you protect it? For example, we had a large technology customer that saw its video conferencing traffic grow fivefold in a 72-hour period when employees started working from home. The result was network congestion, so we quickly put in a number of high-speed, ultra-big bandwidth dedicated Internet connections. Problem solved. Their employees were able to work from home and keep productivity going. What we saw again and again, was that although we didn’t design our network specifically for a pandemic of this magnitude, we did design for flexibility—with software and automation built-in. That made us ready for just about anything. Today, we're seeing an incredible use of data on our network daily, over 390 petabytes—you can Google that—but take my word, it’s a lot!
How do you envision the future of wireless entertainment in travel?
Well, here’s a great example of in-car entertainment. Millions of General Motors vehicle owners and their passengers across the U.S. now have first in-kind access to what's called the WarnerMedia Ride application. We’re offering unique video content on personal smartphones and tablets connected to the car's Wi-Fi hotspot. You get news, sports and entertainment programing from such brands as CNN, TNT, TBS, and Cartoon Network.
General Motors and AT&T introduced the widest deployment of 4G and LTE connected vehicles. As of the end of 2020, there were more than a million subscribers led primarily by GM’s SUV family. We’re committed to ensure our customers can be connected and entertained just about everywhere. Bringing content from the Warner Media library across to the GM vehicle brands brings us another step forward into the world of content they love.
It’s like AT&T created an in-flight entertainment option, but for a car?
That’s a good way to think about it.
Let’s talk about 5G: How is that going to change the business sector, and could you share some practical examples?
5G is here, and we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential. We’re excited about the possibilities, but it’s important to remember it’s not just about speed - it’s about being transformational. That’s why we’ve launched the AT&T 5G Innovation Studio – to further drive widespread adoption of this revolutionary technology in a cost-effective way. And, we’re excited to have Ericsson and Nokia, studio sponsors, join us on this journey. In this space, we’ll work with customers and industry collaborators to ideate, test and validate new 5G-centric applications across a variety of industries.
It's not just about faster speeds. It's about providing a platform to transform industry, helping it do what couldn’t be done with 4G or wi-fi. Mark my words, the applications will take off. Similar to when computers or cell phones were first introduced—when very smart programmers have all the speed with no latency at their fingertips—they’ll put it to work to solve their business problems. For example, hospitals can use 5G to control disinfecting robots, reducing the need for humans to be exposed to dangerous biohazards. In retail, you'll be able to go in and try on five items virtually and see yourself in the outfits in a mirror without even going into a dressing room.
Medical applications are also promising. In one case, a hospice provider in the United States, Vitas, uses 5G with virtual reality that help reduce chronic pain and anxiety for certain patients. In one early use case, a patient couldn’t be physically touched; her pain was at a level 10. Using 5G, she was able to visualize the Grand Canyon in a virtual setting and what it would be like to be there in a peaceful moment. This helped her reduce her anxiety and pain level to a 2, and she could get a few hours of sleep.
AT&T’s long-term goal is to bring AT&T’s fast, reliable and secure 5G to more consumers, businesses and first responders across key areas: sports and venues, entertainment, travel and transportation, business transformation, and security and public safety. From 2016 to 2020, AT&T invested more than $110 billion in our wireless and wireline networks, including capital investments and acquisition of wireless spectrum and operations. During this same period, AT&T invested more capital in the United States than any other public company, so count on us to be a leader.