The tremendous effort of rolling out a 5G network while continuously sustaining and improving on it means AT&T will need all hands on deck -- and it will need those hands learning new tricks. This is a delicate message and the kind inclined to turn off or scare older employees.
Which is why AT&T is trying some new strategies: modesty, humility, and transparency.
AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan last March gave a presentation to AT&T employees around the world that included footage of his mother and details about his childhood, including that he was the youngest of 11 children and his father died when he was still a very young man, The New York Times wrote in a Feb. 13 article.
Donovan's goal, in getting personal, was to get each employee to "imagine yourself in different circumstances, then to persevere in getting there," said the report. (Donovan told the Times he found the exercise terrifying and the very human responses that continue to result from it, "kind of overwhelming.")
In a companion piece the Times ran the same day, Chairman and Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, a man who comes across, at least to some reporters, as guarded and reserved, to say the least, is framed as the indoorsy little brother in an Oklahoma cattle-world family, whose outdoorsy big brother pulled some strings to get him a job at the phone company where he worked.
The other part of the AT&T strategy -- in conjunction with the humility and transparency -- is an aggressive corporate education program that AT&T began offering two years ago, to get employees up to date and to keep them learning.
"There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop," Stephenson told the Times.
Still, the report somewhat softens the blow of the education initiative by framing it against Stephenson's brother who, now 57 years old and still fixing decades-old AT&T copper lines in his home state, has no intentions of taking online courses. And isn't fearing for his job.
"There will be people turning screws and digging trenches. I'll be long gone before that is over," he told the Times.
Far from a one-off class, AT&T's vision -- summed up in a Vision 2020 initiative -- is for employees to spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning, for which AT&T will reimburse $8,000 a year in tuition. Without continual learning, they risk becoming obsolete -- and so does AT&T.
"We are becoming a software company," Donovan said in a blog post last March, explaining the pace, and the new toolsets and capabilities AT&T needs to sustain its move into 5G and beyond.
"We've begun a cultural shift within AT&T to embrace this new software-centric model," Donovan continued. "... We're hiring new talent as well as retraining our current employees, with our workers enrolling in nearly half a million 'Emerging Technology Training' courses covering Agile Project Management, Cybersecurity, Network Transformation, and more."
Collaborations will also be necessary.
AT&T announced Feb. 12 that, beginning in the second quarter, it will work with Intel and Ericsson to develop 5G solutions, which are expected to deliver speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE. AT&T says it hopes to begin testing the technology sometime this year.
While today video is the biggest bandwidth hog, emerging technologies including virtual reality, self-driving cars, and advanced robotics will further the demand for -- and test -- super high-speed, software-based networks.
At the Mobile World Congress tradeshow, beginning in Barcelona Feb. 22, Nokia Bell Labs plans to demonstrate how 5G applications and capabilities will run over its network infrastructure, it announced Feb. 9. These will include demonstrations of interactive virtual reality, with a 1-millisecond latency; a 5G stadium experience; and a show of how manufacturing will use robots connected over a 5G network.
Juniper Research expects early commercial rollouts of 5G in 2020, with widespread adoption arriving in 2025. It expects service revenues related to 5G to reach $100 million in 2020 -- and to exceed $65 billion in 2025.