Reuters Summit - Hate dropped calls? Talk to AT&T's Stankey

NEW YORK Sat May 15, 2010 3:21am IST

President and CEO of AT&T Operations John Stankey listens to a question from a Reuters reporter during a Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York May 14, 2010. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

President and CEO of AT&T Operations John Stankey listens to a question from a Reuters reporter during a Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York May 14, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - There are countless ways to enjoy an evening in New York -- a swanky dinner, say, followed by a Central Park carriage ride or a Broadway show.

Hustling up and down city blocks, furiously testing wireless reception is likely not among them -- unless you happen to be John Stankey.

As the operations chief at AT&T Inc, Stankey, 47, is responsible for solving the phone company's biggest headache: complaints from frustrated iPhone customers about dropped calls and spotty service on its network.

Apple Inc's iPhone is arguably AT&T most important device, responsible for bringing millions of new subscribers to the wireless network. So addressing these complaints is something of an obsession for Stankey, a father of three who says he wouldn't wish his lifestyle on any of them.

Ask him about his career plans, he answers, "Fixing the wireless network quality issue and making sure it works right."

Ask him about a fun smartphone application, and he points to the Speedtest app on his iPhone that tests a network's speed and efficiency.

"Betcha that's not your favorite app, is it?" said Stankey, president and chief executive of AT&T Operations, who oversees everything from research and development to network operations and engineering.

Although the iPhone has won AT&T many new customers, the devices are capacity hogs and have stressed the carrier's network in spots, creating a frustrating rash of lost calls, slow Web connections and delayed text messages in cities like New York and San Francisco.

Stankey, who spends his limited free time with his family, golfing, boating or "doing whatever I can to break a sweat," says AT&T's network is improving, particularly in New York.

"Over the last three months things have gotten dramatically better," he said, speaking at the the Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York on Friday.

"Are they where I feel they need to be? Am I satisfied that we are operating at a quality level that I'd like to see? No. Is it far better than the circumstances we were in during the fourth quarter of last year? The answer is absolutely yes."

On top of all this, Stankey heads the development of a super fast high-speed wireline network and upgrades to the wireless network to the newest wireless technology standards.

CHINA, ICELAND AND BATON ROUGE

Tall, square-jawed, intense but polite, Stankey calls fixing the network's strains one of the "more challenging issues" he's dealt with at AT&T, a company with more than 275,000 employees and revenue last year of $123 billion.

"It's a large organization and a large network, so there are a lot of people involved in it. Not everyone wants to come along willingly, or sees the future the same way. So there are moments when my style has to be what I would call telling, forcing the change, and sometimes doing it without complete consensus in the organization," he said.

Stankey said that he holds staff to "a high degree of accountability" when they are unprepared for a problem or issue that they could have expected: "I can sometimes be pretty unforgivable in those moments."

On the other hand, he adds, "I don't hold people accountable for exogenous variables that they shouldn't anticipate."

Indeed, some of AT&T's network issues could neither have been predicted nor planned around. Stankey says the company is spending everything it can to upgrade the network -- it has earmarked $18 billion to $19 billion in capital spending this year, much of which will be used on the wireless network.

Part of the problem, Stankey said, is that AT&T is unable to purchase components from suppliers fast enough, regardless of what it spends. "Money isn't the object on this," he said.

When the world's economies stumbled in 2008-09, a number of smaller component suppliers went belly up. Factories shut down, and in China, where many of the suppliers were located, workers migrated from the cities back to the country.

"Now they are trying to restart factories and they can't get people back to re-staff the factories," he said.

As a result, even basic network repairs or upgrades have sometimes suffered from agonizing delays, Stankey said, pointing to a case in Louisiana.

"We've got service issues in Baton Rouge and it's nothing more than wanting to put a board into a slot that we can't get, can't buy," he said. "We won't have it for 30 more days. It's a person walking out to a rack and sliding it in, and we can't get the board."

Some delays are even more unexpected. Shipments of badly needed components were pushed back a week by the Iceland volcanic eruption that halted flights across Europe last month, for instance.

The trouble is that customers may not care who -- or what -- is to blame when they can't check their e-mails, sports scores or text messages on their smartphone.

Stankey said he walked around midtown Manhattan for two hours on Thursday evening, using the Speedtest app on his iPhone to see how the AT&T network was performing.

When asked if the speeds passed muster, he said, "It was better, but it is not in all cases passing the standards I would like to see."

So did someone get reprimanded on Friday morning?

"That call took place last night," Stankey said.

(Additional reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Richard Chang)

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