AT&T’s McElfresh doesn’t dwell much on third place in wireless

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AT&T is stressing how its network always has been a strong asset for its wireless business. (Getty Images)

AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh gave props to the company for putting fiber and 5G investments at the forefront following the announcement about the WarnerMedia spinoff, but didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on AT&T’s third-place position in the wireless sector.

In fact, it wasn’t until the end of his session at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference that the third-place position even came up.

“I’m here to grow the business and I’m here to grow it profitably,” said Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications. “I’ve got a team of professionals who wake up every morning who don’t like being Number 3 in the wireless business, don’t like losing share to cable in certain areas where we ought to be better and so we are not looking quarter to quarter just to make a number,” although it’s meeting its commitments.

RELATED: AT&T remains last in 3-horse race to 5G – analysts

“We’ve historically been complicated. It’s hard to understand AT&T’s future,” he said. However, “we intend to be the nation’s premiere broadband connectivity provider,” and it can’t lose market share or continue to chase growth that’s not profitable in certain market segments.

When he took the job six quarters ago, AT&T was losing share in most geographic markets and as a result of the changes it has made, it’s been able to flip that, now gaining more than its current share of 27.4%. It’s getting back to growth, and that brings excitement and an attitude in channels that hasn’t been there in a while. “We’ve invested heavily in this network and the network has always been a strong asset.”

There’s no one element that’s driving growth, but AT&T is growing its first responder base with the FirstNet network, and it plans to continue growing that business with the FirstNet Authority. Its hybrid strategy includes both fiber and 5G wireless; about 70% of the gross adds to AT&T’s fiber network footprint are new accounts to the company, according to McElfresh.

RELATED: AT&T on track with FirstNet build, most challenging sites remain

It also implemented a campaign where existing customers get the same deal on upgrades as new customers, a strategy that was a game-changer in wireless, where operators routinely try to sway customers away from rivals with slick new deals – but they didn’t always do the same for existing subscribers.

“We at AT&T have confidence that we can continue the momentum,” McElfresh said. “We are ready for the competitive responses that have been going on and off for the last eight or nine weeks. We don’t believe we’re the most aggressive in the marketplace. We haven’t been the most aggressive in the marketplace and we’re doing well. We’re also humble and we realize that we’ve got really strong competitors and we stay vigilant.”

The FCC has teed up spectrum operating between 3.45-3.55 GHz and plans to make 100 megahertz of that mid-band spectrum available for auction later this year. It comes after the monumental C-band auction, which raised a record-setting $81 billion for the federal government.

McElfresh noted that most players appreciate the mid-band spectrum for its coverage and capacity characteristics, and the Auction 110 3.45 GHz spectrum sits near the 3.7 GHz C-band spectrum. Predictably, he declined to comment on whether AT&T will bid on that spectrum. 

What’s important now is the work that’s being done to prepare for the deployment of the first tranche of C-band spectrum that becomes available later this year. Teams are hard at work, along with supply chains, to get the equipment deployed and reach 200 million PoPS covered with that by 2023, he said.

“We’re really pleased with the spectrum position that we’ve got,” he said. “I am pleased with the pace at which our network teams are executing the fiber deployment as well as the 5G network. It is definitely a strength for us and an advantage in the marketplace.”

AT&T is investing more in its network each year and to those who think AT&T might be behind in its 5G network investments, he suggests they take a look at the fourth quarter and first quarter performance for 5G customer additions. Its network today covers more than 240 million PoPs, he said.

“Our subscribers seem to be just OK with the performance of our 5G wireless network, so I don’t feel like we’re behind at all,” he said. All wireless networks require a “ton” of fiber, he added, and while it might have invested in fiber to fuel wireless in the past, it’s now also feeding the residential, enterprise and all market segments with fiber.