AT&T’s new leader of 5G marketing talks humbly about ‘hillbilly’ roots

King is a 29-year AT&T veteran who’s headed up a variety of different wireless initiatives over his career. (Getty Images)

AT&T has caught a lot of heat for its 5G Evolution (5GE) icon, which began showing up on some phones in December 2018. Both Sprint and T-Mobile have called the 5GE icon “fake 5G.” And Sprint even filed a lawsuit against AT&T claiming the moniker mislead consumers and damaged Sprint’s efforts to promote true 5G. The parties have since settled that suit

Kelly King
AT&T EVP Kelly King

Now, into this marketing and branding fray walks Kelly King, who in March 2019 was named executive vice president of postpaid wireless products at AT&T. It’s a new position that reports to David Christopher, president of AT&T mobility and entertainment. King has profit and loss responsibility for all the carrier’s postpaid wireless products, including product marketing, pricing, promotions, retention, and forecasting as well as device strategy. And, King is heading up AT&T’s 5G go-to-market strategy.

It seems a rather daunting task, given the controversy that the 5GE icon has already spawned. In addition, T-Mobile’s John Legere has taken wireless marketing to a whole new level. King will be up against T-Mobile as well as Verizon and Sprint in terms vying for 5G customers.

RELATED: AT&T to begin upgrading existing LTE phones to ‘5G E’

King is a 29-year AT&T veteran who’s headed up a variety of different wireless initiatives over his career, and who seems to relish new challenges. Also, he shares Midwestern roots with the company’s chairman, Randall Stephenson.

King grew up in rural Missouri and got his engineering degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia. “My parents would say, ‘You should go work for the phone company; you’ll never have to work more than 40 hours a week; and you’ll never have to move,’” he said.

Of course, that turned out to be the opposite of the way things were. He started working for Southwestern Bell and worked through the internet revolution and the wireless revolution. In 2005, Southwestern Bell, then headed by Ed Whitacre, acquired AT&T and took AT&T’s name and branding.

“My wife and I bounced around all over the place. Ed Whitacre bought a company over in Europe, and we lived in the north of England where I worked on a video and telephony franchise.”

Later he worked in Northern California as a vice president, helping to build one of the first GSM networks in the United States. “Then they asked me to go to Southern California and do the same things,” he said. 

In 2010 he became AT&T Mobility’s regional president for the central U.S., responsible for consumer sales and operations across a 12-state region reaching from Canada to Mexico. He also did stints in AT&T’s enterprise business and international business units.

Ultimately, he became CEO of the wireless service provider AT&T Mexico, which was formed by Iusacell and Nextel Mexico. “I went to Mexico for three years and built out an LTE network,” he said. “We put two companies together; brought the cultures together.

One would think the new CEO for AT&T Mexico would be fluent in Spanish before being recruited for the job, but King said he didn’t know any Spanish at all.

“I was shocked when the chairman called and said, ‘I want you to go to Mexico.’

"For a couple of weeks?” asked King.

“No, I want you to go run it,” said Stephenson.

“You know I don’t speak Spanish. You know I’m just a hillbilly from Missouri.”

“Well, I’m just a hillbilly from Oklahoma.”

King said he had to study Spanish “pretty aggressively.” He became fluent enough to give speeches, but “I can’t negotiate a contract,” he said. “But, I got pretty decent.” 

Under King, AT&T Mexico completed the buildout of the network to 100 million PoPs. He said when the buildout started, Mexico was ranked “dead last” by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of wireless broadband availability. “Last year it passed Germany, Italy and France,” he said.

5G Marketing

Now he’ll be giving his attention to AT&T’s 5G rollout in the US. The message boils down to investments in a software-defined core network, in spectrum and in fiber deployments.

AT&T says it has invested $130 billion in the last five years to modernize its network “We’ve spent more money in the last five years in terms of capital investment and infrastructure than any other American company,” King said. Part of that has been its investment in its software-defined core network. The company says it will meet its stated goal of having 75% of its core network functions virtualized by 2020. 

RELATED: AT&T on the homestretch of virtualization goal

The carrier also has said by early 2020 it expects to have a nationwide mobile 5G footprint using its sub-6 GHz spectrum in addition to millimeter wave spectrum. Being selected to build the nation’s FirstNet emergency responder network also gave the company 20 megahertz of Band 14 700 MHz spectrum nationwide. And FirstNet gives AT&T a 5G advantage because when a technician climbs a tower for FirstNet, he can also prep the tower for 5G. King said it gives the company an “opportunity to go out with one touch to each of our cell sites and also deploy equipment to make that site ready for 5G; so we can do a software execution and don’t have to go back to touch that site again.”

RELATED: AT&T claims its FirstNet deployments will also advance 5G

And finally, AT&T’s fiber investments will be an important factor. “Especially moving into a 5G world, fiber is critical,” said King. “Think of it as the cardiovascular system. We’ll pass about 14 million locations with fiber sometime this year.”

He says the whole process has been an evolution, and he makes no apologies for the 5GE icon. “Customers don’t really understand mmWave and sub-6 and these technical statements,” he said. “We will get the word out in a way — if we do it right — it will be reflected in the value customers see. We believe business apps will lead where 5G use cases will go. I think consumers will follow. We want to bring things to consumers that bring actual utility.”