SAN FRANCISCO — AT&T is pulling out the stops to persuade people about futuristic plans for its network — and itself. Sometimes that means pushing new technology, and sometimes it means that executives show a little vulnerability, something rare in corporate America.
The company recently announced that in the next quarter it would be working with Ericsson and Intel on fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless technology. Before the end of the year, AT&T said, it would be carrying out field trials of the fast wireless technology in Austin, Texas.
That is important for several reasons.
Analysts have worried that AT&T was not providing any information about what it was doing in 5G. Moreover, if the field trials work as planned, the company will have the means to offer millions of homes and businesses much faster speeds without having to dig trenches and lay a great deal of fiber-optic cable.
With a network running potentially at gigabits a second, as this one would, it would be possible to download a feature film in a couple of seconds, or simultaneously operate a number of complex business or consumer functions.
John Donovan, chief strategy officer and president for technology and operations, said AT&T had held back talking about 5G because it wanted to have a system that combines network speeds and the ability to handle cloud-computing software and big-data analysis.
“Everything we do has to do all of these things well,” Donovan said.
As his comment indicates, AT&T is not just worried about network speeds and how they compare with the competition’s. The company is also concerned about how the network absorbs information and adjusts to what it learns.
All that is leading AT&T to make new demands on its workforce. Donovan, who oversees more than 140,000 employees, wants them learning new things fast.
In an effort to get them moving faster, in March at a global gathering for all those people (many watching on video) the executive, previously a partner at the consulting firm Deloitte and the chief of sales at the Internet company Verisign, talked about growing up poor in a family of 11 children in Pittsburgh. His father died 30 years ago, when Donovan was finishing college.
The point, reinforced by a video of his mother, was about being able to imagine yourself in different circumstances, then to persevere in getting there.
“It was harder than you can possibly imagine,” Donovan said of talking about this in front of his staff. “When you get to the top of an organization this size, people expect nothing but confidence.”
The talk included such ideas as accepting who you are, building a long-term plan, learning nonstop, working to the limits of your talent and accepting that a work-life balance is not always possible. These are the same things Donovan and his associates at the top of AT&T are asking from thousands of people, under threat of corporate failure if they cannot adapt.
Nonetheless, Donovan thinks his talk was warmly received, and then some.
“I get a lot of people asking how my mother is doing,” he said. “I have people once or twice a week saying they are praying for me. It’s kind of overwhelming.”