Portland’s Glenn Lurie took a job selling “brick” phones when his soccer career didn’t take off. Now he runs AT&T Mobility, and looks ahead to linking everything through the Internet of Things.

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Growing up, Glenn Lurie couldn’t imagine anything he’d rather do than play pro soccer. By 1990, though, he was newly married and living in his sister’s basement in Beaverton after a season playing in Cleveland.

Already well into his 20s, Lurie had a growing realization soccer wasn’t going to be a career. So the Wilson High School graduate responded to a help-wanted ad and landed a job selling cellphones at Mall 205 in Southeast Portland.

At the dawn of the wireless industry, phones felt like bricks — literally — and ran as high as $2,600 apiece. Lurie’s bosses expected him to sell four in his first month.

Glenn Lurie

Age: 50

Title: CEO, AT&T Mobility (he works in Atlanta)

Education: Wilson High School, Portland; Seattle Pacific University

Experience: Played professional soccer in Cleveland, Atlanta and Portland. Hired by Cellular One (which eventually became AT&T) in 1990 as a sales-account representative for its store and service center at Portland’s Mall 205. He became CEO in 2014.

Source: The Oregonian

He sold more than four times that number and was hooked. Now chief executive of AT&T’s wireless group, Lurie was the guy who negotiated with Steve Jobs to get his company an exclusive deal to carry the first iPhone in 2007.

In Portland recently to review local operations and visit his parents (who live in Vancouver), Lurie, 50, sat down to talk about the industry’s origins and its future in superfast “5G” connectivity.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

 

Q: This is where you got your start with AT&T, 26 years ago. How did that happen?

A: My first month I sold 18 (phones). I came home with my first paycheck that was more than my entire soccer contract for that season. And my wife said: You’re retiring (from soccer). So that’s what got me started here.

I only spent about 10 months in sales. I was about 300-plus percent of plan and got my first promotion into the marketing side here.

 

Q: How much of that was that you were good at sales and how much of it was the market was about to explode?

A: The market was starting to grow, but obviously I’m a pretty determined, pretty competitive guy, and if I was going to stop playing soccer it was about going out and finding a way in a new world. I never thought I could replace soccer with anything and obviously, 26 years later the telecom business and the wireless business has been incredible.

Two years later, the Portland Pride (indoor soccer team) came and I played for the Pride. So I got sucked back in and ended up playing one more season professionally while working in the store. I actually came back and ran the store. I went to marketing for two years and then when I came back to operations I came here and ran this store at Mall 205. At the time, Cellular One actually sponsored the Pride. The phones back then — you were installing them in cars, you were selling “bag phones” that people would carry around with them. This was the very beginning of the market.

You really didn’t start to see penetration and growth until the mid ’90s. That’s because the prices and the infrastructure was so expensive. We sold what was called the Motorola MC750, the “brick phone.” We sold a ton of those and then they slowly but surely got smaller.

 

Q: At what point did you see this was going to be a career for you?

A: Every year you’d go: Who else could we sell to? The government, when they first issued the licenses, the FCC back in the ’80s, thought 10 percent penetration was probably max. Every year we’d see the prices come down. So I just kind of kept with the flow.

The model was pretty set from the consumer’s perspective: You’d get your phone, you’d back a small amount or you’d get it free, and then you’d be locked into a contract for two years.

Subsidies started early because phones were so expensive. In the old days we’d do financing so you could pay $100 a month for your phone, and then pay it off … You paid for every minute you used. Then, with smartphones, everybody thought it was $199, but obviously it wasn’t. We were subsidizing the device.

 

Q: When we got to the subsidy model, you were paying $200 or $300 for your phone. It seemed you could tell, up front, what you’re paying. Now it seems a little more complicated.

A: Actually I think it’s more simple, and here’s why: Now, customers love our Next plan, which allows you to come in, pay zero down and pay on a monthly basis for your phone. We went there because customers wanted it.

Now our customers understand that device is not $199. If you’re buying a high-end smartphone, it could be a $500, $600, $700 value on that device. That customer is saying: That’s the device I want. I can do zero down and (pay) $20, $25, $30 a month depending on the device they pick.

 

Q: I’ve read you see a big opportunity in 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. Give me an example: What’s a capability that 5G will enable?

A: We don’t expect to see full 5G networks in place until 2020. What’s exciting about those is we are testing.

It will bring higher speeds. You say: Why do you need higher speeds? I’m not sure we know yet. Whether it’s 4K television or something else you might want to have on your device. It’ll have lower latency (in telecommunications, latency is the time between interaction between two devices). Lower latency is critical for a lot of things. A great example is connected cars. If you’re going to have cars that are connected and cars that are ‘talking to each other’ vehicle-to-vehicle, you’re going to need real-time latency to be able to have those conversations.

Also, 5G will have a layer that’s focused on IoT — the Internet of Things. Everything will be connected. You need a layer that’s engineered for that and also is low power. You put a sensor on every stoplight so you can manage traffic. The model goes out the window if you have to change the battery every two years. The opportunity there would be to have low power where you change the battery every 10 years.

 

Q: What sort of things could you put the sensors on?

A: Everything. You start with what we call the industrial Internet of Things. Every company in the world right now is looking at “how do I get better, how do I get smarter, more efficient,” and that means real-time data. So we’re putting sensors on almost anything and everything you can think of.

Whether it’s a container floating across the ocean, utilizing different types of technology like satellite, whether it’s a dump truck, whether it’s a John Deere tractor. We’re connecting automobiles — we have over 8 million cars connected. The idea is that technology and connectivity is going to make the car safer. It’s going to help with distracted drivers. It’s going to enable you to see data on that car.

We have a deal with a company that allows us not just to track where a wheelchair is, but it will also show how charged it is, is it working correctly. One of the biggest issues on wheelchairs is the cushion loses air. We actually put a compressor on a wheelchair, with our partner, that allows you to pump it up. It’s all done through an app. So it’s really giving a caregiver that piece of mind.

Everything in your life is going to be connected. The question is: How is it personalized for you?