Chris kindly agreed to this interview after a mutual friend introduced us several years ago.* I WAS A BIT INTIMIDATED when I learned his background includes 23 years in the military as a Navy SEAL. (If that level of commitment doesn’t signal discipline, I don’t know what does.)
Today, Chris is responsible for deploying ~70% of AT&T’s capital dollars, including global responsibility for architecture, planning, engineering, and constructing its wireless, fiber, and core network infrastructure build programs. He also oversees AT&T’s 24/7 global operations team.
With his impressive background and current title, it’s easy to view Chris as untouchable. Instead, the opposite is the case. As you learn he and his wife are foster parents, you see a multi-dimensional side of this leader. He believes in meeting people where they are, offering compassion, and leading with high expectations.
That’s as down-to-earth as it gets.
Topic: Change Management and Culture
ISE: What have you learned about culture and change management that helps your teams succeed with you as their leader?
Chris Sambar: Culture: Be honest with people instead of sticking to the silly talking points that gloss over the real issues. People are smart and see right through the corporate speak.
Change: Clearly define success and help clear obstacles for your teams so your people can get there. People who consistently demonstrate that they don’t want to change need to find a workplace that doesn’t require change.
ISE: What’s the most significant professional risk you’ve taken?
Sambar: I spoke up often and expressed my opinion even when I knew it was unpopular. I was told early in my career that I needed to do a better job of not rocking the boat and towing the company line. I ignored that advice.
Topic: Leadership Style
ISE: Please share ONE word that encapsulates your leadership style. And ONE word that describes you as a person.
ISE: In large organizations, there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening on your team?
Sambar: Reward ideas whether they are acted upon or not because that encourages more ideas. Work hard to get the front line to generate and push the ideas upwards because the front line knows how to win.
Topic: Personality Trait
ISE: What’s an essential personality trait someone needs to succeed in a company like AT&T?
“We think the most effective network security is not one or two special techniques but defending in-depth and with layers."
Topic: 5G Private Networks
ISE: The U.S. Private 5G Network market is projected to grow 53% from 2022 to 2030, with customers demanding ultra-reliable, low-latency connectivity for their future bandwidth-sensitive applications. Broadband network providers are just one of the players in this market. What network-oriented upgrades must occur to ensure AT&T secures its share of this lucrative market?1
Sambar: Private 5G networks are built to address the business customer’s need for highly reliable, low latency connectivity. Operators play a significant role in delivering these requirements by enabling private 5G networks with licensed spectrum and developing processes that enable roaming onto public networks. Without both, we believe that businesses will not be able to meet their resiliency and performance requirements fully.
Additionally, standalone 5G technology will make an even more significant impact on private networks. 5G SA uses a dedicated 5G core to unlock capabilities like faster upload speeds, ultra-low latency, ultra-high reliability, and increased service differentiation. As a company, we’ve recently made significant progress enabling AT&T’s standalone 5G. Many of the newest mobile devices are ready for 5G standalone, and we continue to move thousands of customers daily. And in the not-too-distant future, 5G-connected cars will ride on AT&T’s standalone 5G.
ISE: The growing demand for low-latency applications, data-intensive services, and real-time analytics will drive the deployment of edge computing infrastructure. The U.S. Multi-Access Edge Compute Market is expected to increase 44% from 2023-2030, even though it didn’t take off in 2023 as hoped.2 Talk about AT&T’s roadmap for this area.
Sambar: As business transforms, the optimal placement of workloads isn’t just in the cloud. In an environment with 100s or 1,000s of sensors at a site, it is often ideal to process that data locally rather than hogging up precious bandwidth by sending all the data to an off-site cloud. There are many examples where the workload may need to be hosted closer to the end-user or the device to meet user experience or privacy requirements. MEC represents a distributed infrastructure that brings computing and storage closer to these devices, and it is a crucial enabler to next-generation use cases.
AT&T focuses on rearchitecting the transport between the end devices and the compute to enable direct routing and low latency. To prepare for this evolution of data-intensive services, we are architecting our network by defining rules that route data based on the optimal needs of the application and not just the efficiency of our network. This creates lower latency for applications that are necessary to support next-generation application performance.
One example of how AT&T’s roadmap is already addressing a need is our private cellular network portfolio. These solutions deliver private 5G on premises and provide localization of cellular data for eligible devices. The ability to move data from a device over the on-site 5G network and directly to the customer LAN creates the opportunity for the lowest latency over cellular. We also maintain partnerships with the cloud providers. If necessary, their cloud stack can be deployed with our 5G network creating an end-to-end solution meeting the customers’ low-latency needs. None of this would be possible without the AT&T software-defined network capabilities and virtualized network functions that enable these innovations.
We’re also working to stand up the ability to provide true deterministic routing on our macro network to a regional cloud instance—we call these localized 5G network capabilities “edge zones.” And we’re excited because these edge zones are powered by regional 5G standalone network cores, which will open a range of new capabilities that aren’t possible with 4G. Simply put, we’ll be a foundational building block for tomorrow's inventors/startups.
Topic: Network Automation
ISE: What is AT&T doing to automate their networks to streamline network operations, reduce human errors, improve efficiency, and enable self-configuring and self-healing networks?
Sambar: Three years ago, we started the Network Simplification and Transformation journey to build and operate our network better, faster, and cheaper than anyone else. Using AI, machine learning (ML), and automation, our scientists and engineers are building on a legacy of innovations to tackle some of the most challenging network problems.
Labs AI-enabled automation innovations ensure that we optimally and efficiently operate our network and services. Our AI innovations use ML and predictive analytics to optimize customer experience, learn how to auto-heal the network quickly and effectively, optimally configure very complex network environments, and ensure that we can, in near real-time, get network capacity to where our customers need it. Our AI-based automation innovations also ensure that we efficiently use our resources—for example, reducing our energy consumption and carbon footprint through ML-optimized cell site sleeping.
Topic: Network Security AND Cybersecurity
ISE: Share the two most effective network security approaches and technologies (like SASE or others) AT&T is adopting to secure its network(s).
Sambar: Security starts in the network. We have more than 1,000 security-related patents and have been a security technology leader for over a century. As the owner and operator of the largest network in North America, we're constantly monitoring the security of our network 24/7 using AI, algorithms, automation, and shared alerts from other security experts.
We’re currently building more security capabilities into our core network and edges. These security services will be "built-in” to our connectivity products, creating a new network-embedded security category for small and medium-sized business customers.
The most effective network security is not one or two special techniques but defending in-depth and with layers. Basics are still the key: identity and access management, threat analytics, network monitoring, vulnerability management, and software security. What’s new and helpful is correlating, automating, and orchestrating those basics.
ISE: AT&T recently shared it is expanding its “Internet Air” FWA offering to 16 new locations.3 Share any network-related challenges for this rollout and the solutions your team is employing to secure a chunk of this market.
Sambar: That’s correct! AT&T Internet Air is our new fixed wireless home Internet service. In other words, it’s home Wi-Fi delivered over our reliable wireless network. Customers can easily self-install AT&T Internet Air in five steps and be up and running in less than 15 minutes.
There are challenges in every environment. We spent time identifying customer pain points, like legacy Internet options. We created a solution by utilizing available network capacity in less densely populated areas while still providing a strong connection. We’ve already successfully rolled out AT&T Internet Air to existing copper-based customers. As we begin to scale, we are hyper-focused on selecting locations with enough wireless coverage and capacity to deliver a tremendous in-home experience and maintain a top-notch wireless service for our existing mobile users.
Topic: AI and the Network
ISE: The AI Network Intelligence market is forecasted to grow 40% by 2029. By 2035, it could improve construction profitability by 71%.4 Many providers use AI to tame network complexity, reduce OPEX, and improve network performance management. Share how AT&T is using AI now and how AI will be used across the network by 2029-ish.
Sambar: Today, AI is embedded across AT&T. Customer service is one major area that’s seen many advantages thanks to AI. Behind the scenes, AI optimizes the daily routes our field technicians take in their trucks to serve more customers and handle more repairs with less fuel consumption. AI helps us recognize and block fraud in the network in near real-time to greatly reduce the number of spam calls our customers receive.
We also recently built and launched our generative AI tool for our employees to use—we call it Ask AT&T. It’s an intuitive, conversational platform that you can interact with by asking simple questions. While our initial use case was for software developers to use it to write and refine code, we’re seeing opportunities across every part of our business. Today, more than 30,000 AT&T employees have access to Ask AT&T. Our goal is to put this tool in the hands of as many AT&T employees as possible!
Topic: Network Restoration Successes
ISE: Talk about how network installation and restoration processes will change with robotics, AI, and ML in the next five years.
Sambar: At AT&T, we believe “connecting changes everything,” and to achieve this, we utilize our best human resources and equip them with tools like AI to connect people to greater possibilities. Our Wireless Engineering Organization uses AI in many forms to improve network efficiency and customer experience. As AI technology evolves and our wireless network gets more complex, AI will play an essential role in our network.
Various automation apps help us manage our wireless network, from creating and optimizing neighbor lists to optimization of parameters. We employ ML techniques to detect and triage network issues, identify the benefits of new software features, automatically optimize the network in the event of natural disasters or outages to improve customer experience, and many other optimization efforts. We’re embedding AI into everyday practices and work processes, building on efficiencies and work optimization.
We helped transform our teams to become more analytical and operational through a “digital twin” that brings a new level of intelligence to the core of everything our teams do. We think of AI-powered operations, where analytics, algorithms, and LLMs will serve as co-pilots to help our teams make better and faster strategic decisions. We use our digital twin to mine processes and understand where the opportunities are. Still, before all, we leverage our human closed-loop feedback—talking to front-line employees and getting their input on whether the changes make sense and add value for our customers. We want AI to drive better business outcomes, not simply introduce new technologies.
When installing new networks, we can now design and engineer prints in days (vs. weeks) by digitally sending the designs to our field engineers to walk the plant and make any changes on the spot. We can automatically recalculate the design and submit the purchase order, significantly reducing cycle times and waste from errors. As AI evolves, we foresee leveraging satellite imagery as an example to reduce the design cycles further.
We’re also giving public safety agencies a level of support during emergencies and planned events far beyond anything they’ve ever seen—this includes maintaining the strategically staged FirstNet fleet of 150+ dedicated land-based and airborne portable assets, including drones and amphibious vehicles.
Topic: AI and Sustainability Efforts
ISE: Some say AI will help reduce energy consumption by 30% - 40% because it will better predict the network’s traffic capacity requirements and adjust energy usage more smartly and sustainably. Share how AT&T Network plans to leverage AI to help become better environmental stewards.
Sambar: In addition to helping build the network, AI aids in optimizing and securing our network so you can feel safe exchanging information and data. This enables business customers to run solutions that can increase efficiency and help reduce emissions. And for these solutions to work, connectivity needs to be reliable and widely available, which is why we’re using AI to plan our network better and ensure reliability.
We also enable select cell site capacity to sleep under low loads to conserve energy. We have done this by using ML algorithms that we created to optimize sleeping without impairing customer experience. Cell site sleeping is deployed across our U.S. mobility network, and in 2022, it saved the equivalent annual power use of 13,500 average homes. Using ML and analytics, we can quickly identify inefficient cell sites that consume high amounts of energy and send dispatch repair teams to these sites to maintain energy efficiency. We work with engineering teams to identify and decommission older, less efficient network equipment. For instance, we look at alternative network architectures to enable us to streamline capacity needs and decommission more equipment to reduce energy and save on operations costs.
Even though traffic on our network has skyrocketed, our network electricity bill has roughly stayed the same. Our solutions to improve energy efficiency and reduce power consumption include using advanced analytics and SON capabilities to turn down parts of the unused wireless network at night while maintaining customer experience. We purchase low-energy consumption radios and continue to virtualize network functions, which helps simplify and speed up deployment, minimize unused network capacity, and reduce energy and real estate expenses. Additionally, we collaborate with industry partners, equipment vendors, and other stakeholders to help drive the adoption of energy-efficient practices across the telecommunications sector.
Topic: The Future
ISE: What emerging or disruptive broadband technology excites you the most? Why?
Sambar: For all wireless carriers, it’s impossible to cover every square inch of America with any single technology. Space-based direct-to-mobile technology excites me because it’s designed to provide customers with connectivity by complementing and integrating with our existing mobile network.
For years, we've been working with satellite companies to help test and develop innovative, out-of-this-world solutions for remote and challenging geographic locations, including collaborating with AST SpaceMobile.
We’ve helped AST SpaceMobile achieve some excellent milestones over the past few months, including the world’s first space-based direct voice and video call5 between unmodified every day 4G LTE smartphones. We also recently provided AT&T spectrum for the first-ever 5G connection6 for voice and data between an everyday smartphone.
In the future, we hope these collaborations will help supplement connectivity for customers in rural or off-grid locations to keep public safety connected after disasters or during emergencies. The sky is the limit on complementary connectivity delivered from satellite cellular broadband.
Topic: Fiber Timelines
ISE: What are the best ways to quickly deploy fiber to the underserved and unserved while reducing costs simultaneously?
Sambar: We’re committed to connecting more Americans to reliable, high-speed broadband Internet in several ways, including expanding and upgrading our network, and we believe combining public-sector funding and private-sector investment is the most cost-effective way to do so.
Government funds like the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program create opportunities for public-private partnerships to build fiber in unserved and underserved areas. The federal Affordable Connectivity Program is lowering the Internet price for eligible households, which also helps close the digital divide.
So far, these federal dollars, in partnership with our own private investments, are helping to expand the reach of AT&T Fiber to more than 130,000 customer locations. The customer locations now served are thanks to the speed and momentum of these broadband projects, which represent a whole new world of economic, educational, and social opportunity for those who need it the most. With industry experience building, maintaining, and repairing networks and local stakeholders’ knowledge and support, we can deliver on the goal of helping to bridge the digital divide for more Americans.
*Thank you, Trevor Putrah and KGPCo, for kindly allowing me to facilitate your keynote with Chris at the KGP Pinnacle Conference 2022.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
- Grandview Research, https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/private-5g-network-market
- Grandview Research, https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/multi-access-edge-computing-market
- CNET, https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/at-t-expands-5g-home-internet-with-new-internet-air-offering-in-16-markets/
- Valuates Reports, https://reports.valuates.com/market-reports/QYRE-Auto-7L853/global-ai-in-telecommunication
- Business Wire, https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230425005532/en/AST-SpaceMobile-Makes-History-in-Cellular-Connectivity-Completing-the-First-Ever-Space-Based-Voice-Call-Using-Everyday-Unmodified-Smartphones
- Business Wire, https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230919031637/en/AST-SpaceMobile-Achieves-Space-Based-5G-Cellular-Broadband-Connectivity-From-Everyday-Smartphones-Another-Historic-World-First
Chris Sambar, President, AT&T Network, is responsible for AT&T's next generation wireless & wireline network planning, investment, AT&T's long-term technical initiatives, infrastructure & cloud, tower strategy & roaming, engineering, construction & operations for consumer, business, and government customers.
Chris joined AT&T as part of the Leadership Development Program in 2002. Since then, Chris has held positions in Network Operations, Business Solutions, Consumer Television, Retail & Wireless, Human Resources, Corporate Strategy and most recently, AT&T FirstNet.
He holds an MBA from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science degree from The United States Naval Academy. Following graduation from the Naval Academy, he served 7 years on active duty and 16 years in the reserves with multiple deployments throughout Europe, the Middle East and one tour of duty during the Iraq war in 2005 and 2006. He is married with 4 children and enjoys spending as much of his free time as possible with his family. For more on AT&T, visit www.att.com. Follow them on Twitter @ATT, @ATTNEWS, and @ATTBusiness. Also on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/att/ and Facebook: www.facebook.com/ATT.