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Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg on delivering the promise of a connected world

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg talks with Yahoo Finance reporter Alexis Christoforous about the scability of Verizon's 5G network as well as what it has been like to manage during the COVID-19 crisis.

Video Transcript

- Hans Vestberg has been Verizon's CEO since August of 2018. He's currently leading the quantum leap in ultra high-speed communications, 5G. "The Financial Times" referred to him as the 5G evangelist. Vestberg is currently preaching the gospel of a new digital world and the promise it brings. That promise is even more critical in a post-COVID era.

He's also a leading voice on climate change, digital health, and a passionate proponent for equality and social justice.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: I'm Alexis Christoforous with Yahoo Finance, and joining me now is Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon, which we should mention is the parent company of Yahoo Finance. Hans, always good to see you. Thanks so much for being with us.

HANS VESTBERG: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: So this has been a milestone month for Verizon. You shared the stage with Apple's Tim Cook earlier in the month at the launch of the iPhone 12 event. And there you talked about the expansion of Verizon's ultra-wideband to 55 cities. What does that mean for the company? How is that a game changer for Verizon?

HANS VESTBERG: We have worked with our five-year strategy for several years right now in deploying our five years well. I think that what's happening last week when I took the stage together with Tim Cook was, of course, that we're-- we have the network. We have the ultra-wideband 5G that you talked about. We have also-- we turned on the nationwide 5G. And then, of course, given the importance of the iPhone in the US and for the consumers, then we have the phone that a majority of US consumers have.

So that was sort of the reason why we felt this is-- now foggy is getting real because all the components are coming together. So-- and as you might know, we-- our strategy is very clear when it comes to our network. And first of all, we have the best 4G network. Then we have the ultra-wideband. We have that in 55 cities in a most dense part of this-- of the country where we can do it enormous-- a lot of new things with high-speed capacity and low latency.

At the same time, we turned on the nationwide 5G on the lower band of the spectrum that is covering more than 200 million subscribers in 100,800 cities. So all of that came together alive at the same time as the launch of the iPhone 12, which all of them can enjoy all the technologies that we have deployed in the network. So that's why it was a big moment for Verizon. We have been part of this strategy for years. And now it's sort of coming to the market, to our consumers, and to our customers.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Definitely exciting times for Verizon, but Hans, I think that, overall, consumers are trying to wrap their heads around 5G. In practical terms, what does 5G mean for their experience? Will it greatly and radically enhance things from 4G?

HANS VESTBERG: Yeah, that's how we built it. So Verizon has built, actually, so it's not only sort of in a linear progression from 4G. We've built up the 5G ultra-wideband because it's so transformative. It's 20x the speed, the capacity is so much wider, the latency is so much lower. So you can do things like AR and VR in real time. You can do the multi-viewer sort of cameras at an NFL game with seven concurrent cameras at the same time and you can pick and choose.

These are things you can do with 5G ultra-wideband. So, of course, we have built the network in order to make a step change from 4G. Remember, we had the best 4G network already, and it's all-- it's really good. So we want to do something extra.

The 5G nationwide is in some sort of a level of the 4G network. But that's just the beginning of it. So that-- we have more to do over time, of course.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You mentioned the NFL. I know that Verizon has invested a lot in bringing 5G to sports stadiums, to airports. Sadly, these are areas that people are not frequenting right now because of the pandemic. So Hans, do you hope or expect those investments to start paying off in 2021?

HANS VESTBERG: If you look at the 43 arenas we have built-- where we have sport events, we can already now use them because what-- if you have 5G ultra-wideband in the stadium, you can actually transmit all the cameras back to the user. And the user can actually see it at home in the sofa to enjoy seven cameras, not being in the stadium. So even though we're not frequenting these places today, we can still enjoy the investment we have done.

Then, of course, airports and public places, we see less people today. I think that over time we will get back to those places, maybe not equally as before, but that's where all the capacities, that's where the constraints are, and that's where we have our 5G ultra-wideband, which means that we are gonna be totally unconstrained in these places. And we can do things we've never thought about doing before.

So clearly we think this is the right strategy and for our customers. And that we have seen paying off over time. And we will continue to do so.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: We know that 5G speeds with Verizon are ultra-fast. But one of the concerns we keep hearing is that it doesn't blanket a wide enough swath of space. What are you doing to improve things there in the coming months and years, Hans?

HANS VESTBERG: So this year, we basically do five times more than small cells on 5G ultra-wideband. We just last week or-- yeah, it was last week-- we launched 90 new markets. So we are continuously upgrading it, then, to get a much broader ultra-wideband. But I said we also did the nationwide on another spectrum that is to put 200 million people.

So we continue to develop our network. So we always have a future-proof network for our customers. As the phones are working on the 4G, it's working on the nationwide 5G, and it's working on the 5G ultra-wideband.

And in all the different models of iPhones 12, they are-- we have all three sort of levels of the network that we have built. So I think that's a proof point for how Apple thinks about their future and how we think about bringing our customers in all these experiences.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Hans, I want to talk a little bit about leading this company during this unprecedented time. The pandemic has forced dozens of companies to lay off workers. Verizon has not had to lay off any of its 135,000 employees. How have you been able to do that and pivot for your employees and for your consumers during this time?

HANS VESTBERG: First of all, I think we started off very early on having a conversation of what would be important in this crisis. This crisis is a crisis nobody's seen before. So there are no playbooks. I mean, it's not like a bank crisis or a telecom crisis or something that I've been experienced before.

This is a crisis of health. People are dying from it. It's the health and safety of people, which is totally different. Then, of course, that pivoted into an economical downturn, and then, of course, on top of that, we got racial injustice. So it's a very broad set of crises outside of our company that we need to think about how we're dealing with.

So the first decision was that, hey, we need to see that we take long-term positive decisions for all our stakeholders. And we have stakeholder management with customers, shareholders, society, and employees. And we needed-- we understood that whatever decision we take right now will follow us for years. So we need to think about long-term.

That's why we prioritize our employees extremely high in this beginning, the safety and health of them. Remember, we have all our stores, we have our field engineers being out there every day. Not all our employees can be home and doing remote work. So we needed to really prioritize that.

Then we need to prioritize our customers. There will be customers who are not able to continue their-- to pay their bills. The infrastructure is second-most important infrastructure in the country after healthcare. And so we decided we're not gonna disconnect anyone-- any consumer or small or medium businesses-- because of nonpayment. And we are working with all of them in order for them to see that they can continue to refinance. And we even have taken away charges, given them more data.

That was important decisions, but not only that, for our own employees, we work a lot with communication. And some of the viewers might know that we run a daily webcast. We have done that since February for all our employees. We have had days where we had more than 100,000 employees tuning in. I was live myself for nine weeks, basically, every day. Nowadays, they only bring me in once a week because they're tired of me.

But it was a way to communicate and do things different and right in a time where the nation really needs it. So that is just a couple of things we have done. And, of course, we extended all the caregiving leave, et cetera, with full pay, because this is unprecedented times. And our employees gonna remember this time. Our customers gonna remember it. The society is gonna remember it. And clearly our shareholders will remember it as well. So we just need to see that we manage all the four stakeholders, and that's how we set up the company.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You know, it's hard sometimes to step back when you're still in the moment. But what have you learned leading this company through this pandemic that perhaps, you know, you can pass on to entrepreneurs or to other leaders-- or, you know, if you find yourself in another unprecedented situation down the road, Hans?

HANS VESTBERG: So first of all, when I speak to many of my peers. And they have done fantastic as well. Nobody believed that you can pivot on having so many employees working from home. And I think that goes for me as well. I'm proud how quickly we could pivot the mold and how we can change how we work in the stores, how quickly can change the way we're doing field operations with the safety and health as number one.

So I think that's a learning. I think the other learning in the crisis moment, the communication is so important because you cannot rely on the next level in the organization relaying information because it's so fluid and there's so many questions. That's another learning. And finally, the learning is that, in crisis, the decisions you take are so important because they're gonna live with you for years. And you need to think long-term because that's how the constituency around you thinks.

So that's a couple of learnings we are taking from it. And then you learn personally how you're gonna do work with videoconferencing in a totally different way, democratizing meetings. There are many things we have learned and we still are learning from this pandemic and downturn. We have seen how to work in this new environment.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: It has highlighted the digital divide in this country, so many of us now needing to work from home, so many schoolchildren needing to do their studies from home when they don't necessarily have the tools to do it. And I know that Verizon is working closely with some other companies to help change that. Tell us what you're doing.

HANS VESTBERG: So this is a moment that is very important for our society. I mean, we know the challenges we have in our society, and many of them can only be addressed by the decreasing the digital divide. This pandemic, of course, the silver lining in this pandemic is, of course, being that we can see it works to have healthcare, education, digitally getting-- getting information digitally.

But also, if we don't do it right, we can actually increase the digital divide as well. So this is the opportunity to see that mobility, broadband, and cloud services is the 21st century's infrastructure. And every government, every country, and every private sector need to think about that.

So that's how we've been thinking. And what we are really focused on has been education for underserved schools, where we invested more than 500 million US dollars in 2012 in underserved schools where we gave them both the broadband but we also give them the devices, and we give them a curriculum-- digital curriculum-- because it's very important when you talk about a digital divide is the accessibility of the technology or the broadband.

It's also the affordability. You need to be able to afford it. And finally, it's the usability. We all like Netflix and all of that. But we need actually STEM education or healthcare application that can work on top of it so we get the social benefit from it. That's why the public-private conversation becomes even more important these times. I can assure you Verizon will do everything to continue to lay out the broadband over the country, work with the different constituencies to see that we're getting healthcare and education for all that need to do that digitally.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Now, speaking of social impact, I know that Verizon has set some pretty aggressive goals when it comes to energy efficiency and making a difference when it comes to climate change. You vowed to power the business with 50% renewable energy by 2025. You want to be carbon-neutral by 2035. Tell us a little bit-- share with us how you plan to do that. And what do you believe is the private sector's role in all of that?

HANS VESTBERG: I think we have seen a pivot in the private sector over the last years. I mean, we understand that we are such an important piece of progression of our society. And that's why, when we came with our new strategy for some two years ago, we said that all our strategies are based on the four stakeholders-- on the society, employees, customers, and shareholders. And we have North Star for all four of them.

But remember here, I like philanthropy and doing right things. This is part of our strategy. That we are doing education in schools, that is part of our strategy. Broadband is important for us. It's a core strategy, bringing devices out at work and giving digital STEM education. All is part of our strategy. We want more children and youth to learn about technology, and especially females because we need more females in our industry.

So all in all, that's part of our strategy, and that's how I think about climate as well. And that's how I think about human prosperity. All that, we have embedded in our strategy, and we have sort of bold ambitions on what's in store for all of them. And I think we're progressing well.

On the climate, for example, we're now doing our second green bond that we launched just a week ago where we actually are taking a billion dollars-- this is the second billion dollars that we are investing in the so-called the green technology in order to support the climate change and reducing the climate change.

So all in all, we have actions behind all of them in order to get there. But they are embedded in our strategy. That's the most important. And it's part of our strategy because, usually, when you have tough times, the first thing you start cutting is philanthropy. But you don't start cutting on your strategies. And that's how we think at Verizon, and I think I see many other corporations doing it as well. And we understand our responsibility as a large corporation here in the US and in the rest of the world.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, I think you got it. Think bold. Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon. Thanks so much.

HANS VESTBERG: Thank you very much.