Robert Holliday has seen the wireless industry grow exponentially from its infancy, and he believes even bigger things are coming.
“I think the next five years of innovation will exceed the last 10, and the last 10 was like the world has never seen,” said Holliday, vice president and general manager of AT&T in upstate New York.
He has 30 years of experience in the communications industry to back up his view. In 1991, Holliday joined Southwestern Bell Corp., which later bought AT&T and adopted its name. The Chicago native had assignments in his hometown as well as San Diego, Dallas, New York City and Philadelphia, before coming to Buffalo about a decade ago. He oversees AT&T’s wireless sales and operations in 50 counties in New York state and seven in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a territory encompassing about 7 million residents. While working in Buffalo, Holliday has been active in community organizations, so much so that Mayor Byron Brown declared Dec. 2 Robert Holliday Day in Buffalo.
Holliday, 54, has been married to his wife, Linda, for 32 years, and he is preparing for the next step in his life. He will retire in February, and plans to spend more time with his 85-year-old father. Holliday talked about how far the industry has come, and where he believes wireless is headed:
Matt Glynn: How did you get into the communications industry?
Robert Holliday: It was totally by accident. At the time, I had worked for a firm that was doing a lot of work on home security and corporate security. We would install video systems and sprinkler monitoring systems and security systems in large companies and small homes. We were also doing a lot of work for local police departments with bar lights and two-way radios and things like that. Back when wireless began in the early ‘80s, and I just happened to be in Chicago, which was the first city that commercially launched service.
If you were working on a car back then, if you were installing things in a car, an auto alarm system, two-way radio systems, for example, which we were, it was a natural fit for you, because the telephones being installed in people’s cars had these big trunk units in the trunk and wiring throughout the car and antennae that needed to be mounted. So we were perfectly set up to be introduced to the wireless business.
MG: How has AT&T tried to stay competitive in wireless?
RH: The difference between the product we sell today in upstate New York and the product we sold eight or nine years ago is light years different.
MG: How competitive is this industry?
RH: Wireless in general is competitive to begin with because there’s so much opportunity out there. … There wasn’t as visible a dramatic change in the first 20 years in wireless as there has been in the last 10, at least in my view. I think the next five will be more dramatic than the last 10. ... A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s the next thing that will be connected wirelessly?’ And I ask them a question, ‘Tell me something that won’t be.’ We manage our thermostats, our refrigerators, very soon our cars, today our wallets, all wirelessly. If we want to make sure that our mom or dad are taking their medicine, we can manage the pill cap on their bottle. If we want to make sure that our babies are sleeping well and have a normal heartbeat, we can put them in pajamas that measure those biometrical types of things wirelessly.
MG: How does Western New York stand out among AT&T’s markets?
RH: I think the dramatic changes that occurred over the past five to six years is probably the thing that stands out the most. For example, this year we’ve added a considerable amount of LTE, or Long Term Evolution fourth-generation [4G] footprint. We’ve added a considerable amount of capacity. We’ve improved our in-building coverage.
MG: Is 5G the next frontier?
RH: Absolutely We’re already talking about 5G (fifth generation). I’m not extremely familiar with it, but fifth-generation networks and enhancements to those networks are already on the architecture plans, and they’re already working on the next thing beyond that.
MG: What’s your impression been of Western New York?
RH: I was born and raised in Chicago and had the good fortune to live around the country. … Of all the places that I’ve lived, I’ve spent most of my career in Western New York. Western New Yorkers are some of the nicest, most sincere, salt-of-the-earth people I’ve ever met. I often tell people I feel like Buffalo’s my hometown. … I really feel an attachment to Western New York and it’s because of the people. And I’ve met some wonderful people over my time here, like Brenda McDuffie at the Buffalo Urban League, or Diane Rowe at the Boys & Girls Clubs, folks from the Boy Scouts, folks from the Better Business Bureau.
MG: You’ve been involved in a lot of community organizations. How did that come about?
RH: Originally it was because of selfish reasons. I thought it would help the company, I thought it would help business. And I think to some extent it did that. But more importantly, I got to know people and I got to understand their mission, and I just fell in love. I couldn’t get enough. When I was working on the Boys & Girls Clubs [board], I would get introduced to people at the Urban League just because of the tight community that Buffalo is, and then to the Scouts, and the New York State Wireless Association and etcetera. The kind of work that needs to be done, and the people that were doing it, I just felt really good around them. ... Part of it was an outlet for me, and I really enjoy the work. I really, really liked it. And the teams of people I was able to work with, from the Erie County Medical Center to you name it, we actually made a difference.
MG: What was it like having the mayor name a day for you?
RH: I was just blown away. That day might have my name on it, but that was really a team thing. I’ve got such a great team at AT&T that when we would have a function at Erie County Medical Center Lifeline Foundation, they would throw a golf outing, or throw a 5K run, or we would have a black tie gala, my team would join me in getting there at 4 o’clock in the morning, setting up the signs. They were thoroughly invested in all those activities we did. So that day might just have Bob’s name on it, but that’s the team that did that.