Cathy Coughlin thinks about data a lot. As Chief Marketing Officer at AT&T, she uses data from customer surveys and network traffic reports to understand what AT&T’s customers want. And what they want, of course, is data. Coughlin says data traffic has increased 20,000% on AT&T’s network during the last five years, and that there’s no end in sight. “We are at the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “Everything can and will be wirelessly connected. The smartphone will be the platform, the hub – command central for you home, your healthcare, your car, your wallet.”
Delivering all that data will be a challenge, and Coughlin says AT&T will be ready. “We are investing in our network,” she says, “$20 billion this calendar year, and we have spent $115 billion over the last five years – we are spending more than any U.S. company.”
Those investments, combined with hefty device subsidies, have depressed service provider earnings and led the carriers to rethink pricing. Late last month, Verizon Wireless launched a new pricing plan that allows multiple devices to share a “bucket” of data, but raises the price charged for each gigabyte. Now industry observers are wondering how long it will be until AT&T follows suit. “AT&T is absolutely looking at it,” says Coughlin. “It is a data centric world and pricing needs to reflect that.”
Coughlin says that AT&T is also actively looking for spectrum acquisitions. In the months since the FCC killed AT&T’s $39 billion bid for T-Mobile, the nation’s second-largest carrier has reportedly been talking to smaller carriers, including Leap Wireless and MetroPCS, about possible acquisitions. “We are also very vocal about policy changes,” says Coughlin. “We are very specific in our urging to require spectrum holders to put the airwaves to work.”
Coughlin also experiences frustration with some of the local approval processes for tower permitting. “When the nation’s railroads and national highways were built, there was a national model for local approval,” she says. “Going municipality by municipality can take years and years. We support a national approval process, certainly taking local interests into account.”
Engaging with lawmakers to impact policy is nothing new for the 130-year old AT&T, and the company can argue that the connections it is providing are as crucial to Americans today as the highways and railroads were in the past. “Wireless connectivity… is transforming how we live, work and play,” says Coughlin, who has seen a sea change in customers’ response to wireless technology. Just a few years ago, Coughlin says people felt they were “connected all the time” and didn’t want more technology in their lives. But as wireless technology has become more familiar and easier to use, attitudes have changed. Now, says Coughlin, “People love technology. They depend on it. It enriches their lives versus making it harder.”
Enriching lives is a key theme of AT&T’s “Rethink Possible” marketing campaign, which Coughlin has overseen for the past two and a half years. “We have marketed it as much internally as externally,” she says. “Our 250,000 employees are very important stakeholders … and innovation is part of everyone’s job.” She says that more than half AT&T’s employees have participated in the company’s Innovation Pipeline, which encourages workers to submit product or service ideas. Coughlin says AT&T has funded about 50 of these ideas, including the highly successful AT&T Toggle, which allows users to “toggle” their smart devices between work mode and personal mode.
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is Coughlin’s current summer reading because it points to “the innovator in all of us” she says. And there’s something else in Lehrer’s book that resonates with Coughlin. “I like that he points to the fact that you have to have wicked determination,” she smiles.
Cathy Coughlin is one of RCR’s Top 10 Women in Wireless for 2012. Look for the complete list in our feature report later this month.
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