From the outside, it seems that AT&T’s wireless arm has been dealing with the classic blessing-curse dilemma.
As the exclusive U.S. network for the Apple iPhone crowd pleaser, Atlanta-based AT&T Mobility has enjoyed the benefits of millions of new customers. At the same time, the network has been so overwhelmed that the company has scored poorly in some customer satisfaction surveys.
From the inside, however, Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, chalks up the problem to short-term growing pains.
“It’s a brave new world in wireless. Anytime you’re dealing with new technologies, you’re going to run into a few obstacles,” he said. “We had to adjust our network capability in quick fashion.”
I mentioned to de la Vega that I posted a blog item shortly before our recent interview to take an unscientific pulse of Atlanta cellphone consumers. The result: AT&T was clearly the target of the most venom.
But, de La Vega was undaunted, saying the company was investing billions in its network, and it was full speed ahead with the iPhone, iPad and many other wireless products — present and future.
It was not surprising that de la Vega kept focusing on his hard-charging mission. For those who don’t know his background, he came to Miami from Cuba without his parents when he was 10. He recently wrote a book, “Obstacles Welcome,” which chronicles his personal and professional successes.
Today, his most pressing business obstacle is competing in the ever-changing wireless world, where innovation, speed, execution and growth are critical.
“We’re doing all of that out of our Atlanta [Buckhead] home,” he said. Even though AT&T is headquartered in Dallas, de la Vega’s $53.6 billion wireless operation is based here, along with more than 20,000 employees.
Will that change?
“We love Atlanta. You’d have to give us a reason to leave,” he said, adding that his company benefits from the city being so connected. (Atlanta was recently ranked No. 2 on Forbes’ list of “most wired cities.”)
Recently, de la Vega launched two future-oriented operations here. The first is an Emerging Devices Organization. It focuses on helping AT&T gain business from companies selling electronic book readers, personal navigation devices, netbooks and laptops, as they evolve into more sophisticated machines.
The second is a virtual innovation lab set up in Atlanta that allows developers of wireless applications to test them through the Web. The developers, de la Vega explained, can see how their applications would perform on an actual network.
Touting the speed and reliability of their respective networks has led to a multi-billion-dollar ad war between AT&T and Verizon. To add to that bill, the more wireless products that come on line, the more money that has to be spent to upgrade network capacity.
“Our business is really becoming a lot more data-centric everyday,” said de la Vega, 58. “Data uses a lot more spectrum than voice. … You need to add capacity ahead of demand.”
You can’t say he didn’t learn something from his iPhone experience.
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