Business

ON THE JOB: STEVE SITTON

Your future is in the palm of your hand.

That’s what Steve Sitton believes.

The AT&T executive sees the day coming when consumers will carry around pretty much all of their information — including financial and health-care records — in a small wireless phone or personal digital assistant.

Even now, he said, “I go right into my server and pull reports down or whatever with this thing. In fact, I don’t even carry my laptop, I hate to admit, very often anymore because I can do most of my stuff on here.”

A three-decade veteran of the telecommunications and wireless business, Sitton has worked his way up the ranks to become president of AT&T Mobility’s Southeast region.

He was in Columbus on Monday to announce AT&T’s high-speed wireless broadband service called 3G, as in “third-generation” network. Transfers of video, voice and data should be extremely fast for those using 3G, the company says.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Sitton at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center before he officially unveiled the service. Here are portions of that interview:

What was your first job?

My first cellular job, I started up the first company in North and South Carolina for Alltel in Charlotte. And then I did a whole bunch of startups. My first job with Southwestern Bell, which later became AT&T, was in Dallas-Fort Worth. I started out at a pretty high level, running their cellular business there.

What was it like on that first startup in Charlotte?

It was great because no one knew what to do, so you couldn’t do a wrong job. Truthfully, no one knew what to do. I just traveled around and learned and read what I could. We started it up, and it was very successful.

The phones were $3,500 back then. The service was over $1 a minute. So you had to be a pretty good sales person to even get someone to get on your service and pay that much for a phone.

What did you tell your staff in the Columbus stores today?

You don’t have to tell ’em much. They’re so excited they’re getting the high-speed network. And in a few weeks we’re going to have the 3G iPhone. They’ve been selling 3G devices here for years, that don’t work, because we haven’t had the network here.

Concerning the coverage area, Verizon’s high speed network falls off to a slower mode in spots between Atlanta and Columbus. What about your 3G?

Ours does, too. It falls to our Edge network, which is still high speed. It’s just not the blazing speed this is. And we’re building this out with the new HSUPA (High Speed Uplink Packet Access), which gives you the high-speed uplink as well as the downlink. So we’ll have, by all rights, the fastest network in the country, and you’ll have it right here in Columbus.

Are there plans to close coverage gaps here with the overall growth the area is expecting?

There are plans to not only close the gap, but to make our whole network UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), even all of the rural areas . . . which is backwards compatible with GSM (Global System for Mobile communications, the most popular cell technology in the world). We’ll just move it right on to all our sites.

What’s the timetable on that?

It will be several years, probably 2010 before it’s fully deployed.

What did it take to get to this point, launching 3G, and did it take longer than you wanted it to?

We were still building out our coverage in south Georgia. We were sort of late to the dance here on the frequency bands and licensing. But we’ve really been working hard on that. We put 40 new sites here. We’ve got another 12 coming up in this area.

What it took, really, was to get the right network designed. And, with UMTS, you actually get a little better coverage because everything is digital, and even the voice coverage goes a little farther. Like when you text message, text will go farther than voice because it’s digital material. So we actually gain some better coverage in buildings with the new UMTS, which was sort of unexpected. We knew that, technically, that was supposed to happen, but we didn’t think it would be that noticeable. But it is.

Verizon Wireless has had a head start in Columbus with the high-speed network it rolled out in October 2006. Will it be tough competing against them?

No. We like to think we’re last to the dance, but we’re going to be best dressed. We’re going to have faster technology, we’re going to have better technology. We’re rolling it out all over Georgia. It’s going to take a few years, but we’ll pretty much have it ubiquitous. We already cover 87 percent of the PoPs (potential Internet customers) nationally. So even though we’re last to the dance, we feel like we’re going to have a great value for customers.

We’ve got cutting edge devices that they don’t have. We’ve got exclusivity on the iPhone. Everyone’s got iPhone lookalikes, including us. We’ve not found anything that matches up. Now, the iPhone will have business applications which will allow you to do Blackberry-like, RIM-type server business applications. So we feel like we’re just about as best dressed as we can be.

And it’s just really exciting that, even though you’re later getting 3G, you’re getting the new, fastest 3G. All of this area’s deployed with that. Right now, you’ve got the newest, greatest thing. No one in the world has any better than Columbus, Ga.

How long has 3G been in Atlanta, and what other markets are getting it?

It’s been in Atlanta for about a year and half, and pretty much is in or will be in most of the major cities in the Southeast by the end of the year. Athens has it. We’re bringing up Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg. Most of the Carolinas is coming up. We’ve got Birmingham, Montgomery. Most of the major areas are coming up.

Do you expect 3G to pump up your business and sales?

It’s going to pump it up all right. It’s going to pump up the amount of information we can do, the bandwidth. People will be trading up their phones. It will allow people to do more with their phones.

A lot of people are just now getting e-mail on their phones. What we’re finding is, when we put e-mail on someone’s phone before they leave, and they’re just like, “Oh, man, I didn’t know how much I needed this.”

People are using data services and Internet more with their cell devices?

Internet is really exploding now as mobile applications become more and more mainstream — newspapers, TVs, mobile ESPN. We’ve got 40 TV channels you can watch on this phone. You’d be surprised. The picture is very good . . . I think what you’ll see is they will continue to get more pixels and get clearer, because we have more bandwidth to send information and pixels.

Are you astounded by how technology has changed since you first got into the wireless business?

I’m not so astounded now. But I started out a two-way radio guy, and I studied technical stuff that said what we’re doing now could never happen. Scientists looked me in the eye and said we can never put radios that’ll work on 800 and 1900 megahertz because they’re too far apart. It’s a physical limitation that will be insurmountable. We’ve had these years on 800 and 1900. So I always tell people never say never because computer technology, what, changes every six to 12 months . . . I really believe this will become your knowledge base. You’ll carry all the knowledge in the world in your hand. Everything.

Which leads to the question of security. How secure is 3G?

We use encryption on it. One thing I’ve learned to say is never say anything can’t be broken because there’s always people finding new ways. But it’s very, very good encryption . . . and we’re always looking for more and more security. The amazing thing is — I hate to even mention it — we haven’t seen that much mobile problems as we have with people getting their computers stolen.

If people have ’em on servers, they usually have a firewall that’s heavily fortified. We do at our company. I have a firewall with my router at home, and we encourage everyone to do that, because the same thing that’s coming to your home computer is going to be coming here. We feel like so far so good with that.

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