For almost a decade, Mark Romito has been working with AT&T to deploy new technologies across the Southwest Ohio region. Mark helps county and city governments work through the legislation necessary to grow broadband, cellular, and other AT&T technologies, and also helps charities and non-profits in those areas with AT&T’s financial support. Mark and I sat down to discuss what it takes to make innovation happen at the government level, and some of the new and groundbreaking applications of 5G technology.
Sam Schutte: In today’s show we have Mark Romito. Mark is with AT&T and is the director of external affairs. I met Mark through the Cincinnati Rotary Club. And today we’re going to talk about innovation in cellular technologies and community relations. Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Romito: Hi Sam, thanks for having me.
Sam Schutte: No problem. First question, how did you get into your field? What’s your career path been? How did you end up where you are?
Mark Romito: Well I ended up in telecommunications pretty much by accident. When I was in college the job market was very tight. And I heard a good way to land a position was through the co-op program or intern program that they had at the college. And I interviewed at a few places to be a computer programmer. But they wanted someone who could stay longer than three semesters. And anyway, after going through several of those interviews, I interviewed with a local, Cincinnati based, telecommunications company. And they hired me in the regulatory department.
Sam Schutte: Okay.
Mark Romito: From there I ended up being one of the leaders of that department heading up regulatory management and being the lobbyist for our Kentucky territory. And stayed with them for almost 27 years until I was unceremoniously relieved of working there. And then I was able to land a position with AT&T.
Sam Schutte: Okay. What was one of the first projects you worked on there at AT&T and that got you started?
Mark Romito: Well with AT&T we do this [inaudible 00:01:33] position. I do a lot of work with our stake holders, which you can define that as just about anyone outside of the company. I am externally focused. So I’m looking at government officials at the federal, state and local level. In district, in my territory. I’m looking at non-profit organizations, chambers of commerce and even customers. So just about anyone that’s outside of the company, I have the potential of dealing with. And we refer to them as stake holders.
Mark Romito: And so occasionally we’ll have a piece of legislation or something like that where … And this happened when I started with AT&T, there was a piece of legislation that we wanted to get passed and it was exciting time for me because I got to meet the legislative caucus for southwest Ohio and talk about that legislation and talk with them individually, talk with them in groups. And try to persuade them that the legislation was good for not just AT&T but good for Ohio.
Sam Schutte: Interesting. We should say that you’re here to talk about your career and the cellular trends and cellular technologies. But this is not an official AT&T interview, you’re not representing AT&T for that.
Mark Romito: That’s right.
Sam Schutte: It’s a public company. It’s important to [crosstalk 00:02:49] that.
Mark Romito: That’s correct, that’s correct. All my opinions are my own and AT&T may or may not agree with those.
Sam Schutte: Exactly.
Mark Romito: But still glad to be here. And also, I’ll just let you know as well, I’m more of a generalist. I’m not really a tech person. But I have been in the industry for over 30 years. So I’m somewhat dangerous.
Sam Schutte: Yeah. And so, and you said you work with how many counties in Ohio?
Mark Romito: 23.
Sam Schutte: Okay, great. So that’s like-
Mark Romito: I go as far up as a little north of Lima, Ohio. And then I follow the state line all the way down to Cincinnati and then over to Portsmouth.
Sam Schutte: What are you going to do with those counties? What’s your day to day job working with them?
Mark Romito: Well if an issue pops up, for example, it may be in a city where we may have difficulty getting a permit to install a fiber or to install new poles or something like that. Our network folks will engage me and then I’ll try to work and facilitate between our network folks and the city on what they need and, “Do you really need that? Can we send it to you later?” Or whatever the situation might be so that we can get the service installed as quickly as possible.
Sam Schutte: Do you end up going to a lot of planning and zoning type meetings and stuff or is more working with- ?
Mark Romito: I have. A better example would be with regard to recently we did some legislation on small cells which installs a piece of technology that will help with the development of 5G. But specifically with small cells a number of cities had to implement their own ordinance. And when I would become aware of that, I would read the ordinance, figure out if the ordinance was consistent with the state law and if it wasn’t, then I would reach out to the city and possibly even attend their city meeting and testify at the meeting.
Sam Schutte: Interesting. Yeah, so I’m on a planning and zoning commission in Sharonville and so I’ve seen that first hand a bit when you’re talking about ordinances and that law being written, what do you base it on? And if a small town is making it up on their own, it can be very difficult to figure out. Like is it compliant with federal state law? County law, everything else. And certainly it can help to have a boilerplate to start with sometimes. Or I think we tend to say, “Let’s look at other communities and see what they have done and see what we can learn from them,” and so forth.
Mark Romito: Yeah. And that’s typically what happens. No one wants to recreate the wheel. And we try to be a partner in that in trying to show the particular cities where we find their ordinance to be something where we can have a path to success, where it may be in conflict with the state law or it maybe somewhat unreasonable what they’re asking for. But also to let them know that this is, it may be going on the right path. And this is turning out to be a good ordinance.
Sam Schutte: Okay. When you look at the counties that you work with, what is their access in general to, say like the level of [inaudible 00:06:02] connectivity we have in Hamilton county here where we have pretty good signal just about everywhere and high speed and all this. Obviously I’m assuming in more rural counties that’s not the case. What does that look like in the … ?
Mark Romito: Yeah. It can be more spotty in the rural areas. It’s no secret that typically the newer technology, the advancements in the technology go to where there’s more population. We’ve seen that with the going as far back as custom calling features, if you remember those. Things like call waiting. When they were first implemented it was in those areas that had the greater population. The same with broadband, broadband is expanding but it’s very difficult to make a business case to put it in a very rural area where you may only have 10 customers in that particular area where that equipment will serve. The equipment may cost thousands and thousands of dollars. You may only be able to reach 10 households. And then those 10 households may or may not sign up for the service.
Mark Romito: So it becomes very difficult to have the business case for that. But in general, though, I think our service on the wireless side is quite good. I think it will turn out to be getting much better going forward because of the FirstNet product, which this is something that’s relatively new. The federal government because of 911, if you remember that day, many of our first responders couldn’t communicate well with each other because of the stress on the network. And as a result of that, the 911 Commission may want their recommendations that there should be a stand alone, dedicated network for first responders. In the case of an emergency like that.
Mark Romito: So they put that out for bid and AT&T actually won the bid, it’s a 25 year agreement. We’re putting in literally billions of dollars into the network to expand the network for all first responders. So that they would have that access. So you may want to think of it in terms of a three lane highway where the left lane would be dedicated for first responders. And then the other two lanes would be for commercial purposes. In case of an emergency, that left lane would get too crowded with first responders, we could then expand them over into the center lane. Or even into the right lane if it becomes that serious. But they will have that dedicated network that is also somewhat flexible, expansible, if you will, to handle the emergency.
Sam Schutte: So do they have special phones that are on different frequencies or anything for that? Or is it really just [crosstalk 00:08:55]?
Mark Romito: There is a special channel that, and part of the agreement with the federal government on that is we agree to invest certain amount of money, the federal government provided to us something called Channel 14, which is specified spectrum that would be used solely for FirstNet. We report to the FirstNet authority in this matter. But we are responsible for building the network, educating first responders, about the network and then signing them up on the network.
Sam Schutte: Interesting. Well it seems, I think that a lot of folks would, especially in rural areas, access to 911 and quick first response, if you will, some folks would see that a little bit as a human right almost. That’s something people all deserve, right? Obviously there’s things like broadband and whatnot might be a little more a luxury. So that’s interesting because obviously you don’t want it to be difficult to get someone to come put a fire out in your house, even if you are in a less populated area. Right? So …
Mark Romito: Right. And the FirstNet is more of a, again dedicated for the first responders. 911 is actually another network altogether. But because of those investments to make first network, there will some enhancements also to the normal network. As we put up more towers, for example. To provide service to some of these more rural areas or cities where, and first responders that are more rural areas, there will be benefits for the customers as well.
Sam Schutte: Okay. Interesting. And you mentioned putting up towers. And I know that’s a complicated process. Or it used to be harder, but I think it’s getting easier. I’ve seen some information out there about how much smaller and smaller different towers and stuff have become and easier to not be so visible and such. Can you talk about the advancement there at all or what’s changed?
Mark Romito: Sure. One of the things that I think is going on in the industry, and this is one of the big changes in the industry, the trend isn’t so much for building these very large cell towers that we’re familiar with as we drive down the interstate. There’s still going to be a need for those, the trend right now, especially as we’re looking at 5G, especially as we’re looking at areas where we may be experiencing some congestion is for the small cells. Which these are much smaller types of antennae that can go on top of a utility pole or a telephone pole. In some cases they can be on the side of a building or camouflaged in some way.
Mark Romito: But they’re really, for the most part, pretty innocuous. A lot of times people don’t even notice they’re there. Some of them look like a five gallon bucket sitting on top of the pole, really, with some electronics near it. But they’re very much needed to bring the network closer to the customer. And because of that, they’ll have better capabilities and better quality of service as well.
Mark Romito: And it comes in very handy when you have certain areas like, I’m just using the example, Over-The-Rhine or down at the banks where different times of the year you may have a very large group of people in one place. That puts a demand on the existing network. And by having a few of these small cells strategically located in those areas we’ll be able to handle the demand.
Sam Schutte: I imagine in a place like Over-The-Rhine too there’s probably not a ton of up tick and demand for high speed and cellular, as that era has revitalized, even when it’s not a big crowd or opening or something like that there. When it was all … what was it? Eighth out of nine buildings were vacant, I think, in, say, the year 2000.
Mark Romito: So as people start moving in and of course the have more and more demands and needs and that’s the reason for this new technology and really for 5G as well. The evolution to 5G.
Sam Schutte: Let’s talk about that a little bit. The evolution to 5G. I think a lot of folks have heard of it but probably don’t know a lot about it other than differ to 4G and 5G sounds better. Right?
Mark Romito: Right, right. No, yeah. It’s one more.
Sam Schutte: Yeah, 1A.
Mark Romito: So it is better. But seriously it’s something that people a lot of times just associate it with speed. And they think, “Well, it’s just going to be faster, it’s just another addition, it’s not that big of a deal.” In reality, it is a big deal. It is underrepresented speed. It will be much faster. I think we’ve gotten the speeds up to two gig in some of our testing. And someone told me that’s like a 100 times more or a 100 times faster than the current 4G environment. They said it’s like downloading a two hour HD movie in 10 seconds. So it is going to be fast.
Mark Romito: But the other two big advantages to it is what we call massive connectivity. And again, thinking about your discussion of Over-The-Rhine is it gets populated, these vacant buildings become populated with people living in apartments or whatever. People more and more have things that are connected to the internet. Their watches, thermostats, security systems.
Sam Schutte: [crosstalk 00:14:40].
Mark Romito: Dish washers, refrigerators, the list goes on and on. The 5G will allow for more of those sensors, more of those internet things, devices, more devices to be connected. So it’ll be able to handle more and more of that. If you think again of when you’re at a ball game or at a concert, you have a lot of people, big demand on the network, everybody’s trying to post their photo or whatever. In a 5G environment, it wouldn’t be a problem. Today we have distributed antennae systems in a lot of those venues to help with the traffic. But in a future looking 5G environment, you would not really need that distributed antennae system.
Sam Schutte: Interesting. There’s a number of startups that are out there who have built products which, I won’t name any startups, but there’s products in the space to try to help with situations like that by going around wireless and not using cellular, for instance. So people doing sound based data, people doing image based data and stuff … specifically at like a ball game. But it sounds like if 5G’s available you really won’t need to do any of that.
Mark Romito: That’s right.
Sam Schutte: Because those are all BAND-AID solutions a little bit, to begin with.
Mark Romito: That’s correct. That’s correct. Yeah they’re like work arounds. And then the third big thing with 5G that I should mention is the ultra low latency. And the latency is basically the buffering that goes on as your device is talking to the network and the network is sending the information to your device and vice versa. We’re going to be getting down where it’s almost as quick as your brain processes reality. And that’s how fast the network will be. And that’s really necessary if you’re looking ahead toward things like autonomous vehicles. You’ll need that virtually instantaneous communication so that the car will be able to sense if something’s in front of it, if that car is driving at 30 miles an hour, it needs to be very quickly. Know, how do I deal with that thing in front of me?
Sam Schutte: Interesting. Yeah, you think about just the amount of data a car like that is capable of generating if it’s got multiple cameras and radar and some of them have LIDAR and other things on them. If Tesla or somebody wanted to view any of that in real time for some reason, there’s no way right now. It’s just too much information.
Mark Romito: Right. But the cars are even going to be talking to each other. And letting them know of things that are coming ahead or …
Sam Schutte: A hazard maybe.
Mark Romito: … there’s a hazard maybe up ahead. They may have sensed some additional breaking of the other cars and they realize also a traffic jam is forming. It’s pretty amazing. But it is tons and tons of data.
Sam Schutte: Well the addressable space or, you talked about, Internet of Things and that sort of thing, is interesting because … That’s almost like adding more seats to the baseball stadium, to go back to your analogy a little bit there, in that situation. Because you think about your typical home router. Most of them probably have a capacity, if you’re running on your Wifi of a few hundred devices, unless you really change up your IP configuration a lot or hack it. I don’t think you could very easily do that out of one house right now with existing cellular, right? Have 256 devices, let’s say, using an LT connection in your house, it’d be crazy, right?
Mark Romito: Right, right.
Sam Schutte: But I think taking Level C more and more to the extreme and people are putting, connecting so many devices nowadays that you wouldn’t think to connect. Like I know a company that’s working on an IOT connected air freshener, for instance. Just a little disposable plugin air freshener that also connects to the internet and does something. I don’t know why you’d really exactly need that, but …
Mark Romito: Would need that, yeah.
Sam Schutte: But-
Mark Romito: They’re only limited really by their imagination on what they could do. I’ve heard of some of these applications where with the dumpsters and trash pick up where they may have a schedule of picking it up every week but because they have that sensor in there, they may know three days early that it needs to be emptied now. And then they could send the crew out to empty it. And that ties in with, we’re talking about the Internet of Things, moving into another discussion of smart cities. Where again, all of these sensors can do so much. And can really be of great benefit. I know we did some work with, in California, during their drought, where they implemented a number of laws concerning washing your car and watering your lawn, where all that was restricted, through an Internet of Things application, we were able to show them that you’ve been wasting millions of gallons of water through leaks in the current infrastructure.
Mark Romito: And that was again by measuring the water pressure at different points, maybe even some of the sensors that could detect moisture. But anyway, through that, they were able to save just gallons and gallons of water and help out in that situation with the drought.
Sam Schutte: So my customers are very active in an industrial Internet of Things, and you figure within a particular factory … So connectivity is a problem, getting all the devices running within a huge factory. All on your wifi for instance, a lot of them I think have looked into cellular solutions for that but it’s just not … the latency is an issue because they need to know real quickly when something happens. And then there are certainly factors out there where every single widget, let’s say, that they’re producing, has an embedded NFC or something very cheap inside it. Down the line, if it becomes affordable enough, could that all be cellular? Potentially, right now you could never have thousands and thousands of cellular [inaudible 00:21:07] within one factory.
Mark Romito: Right. But the thought is, with 5G the possibilities are there for these smart factories to really be able to reach a fuller potential, with regard to the sensors and with regard to the data. Of course, it begs the question, you’ve got all this data, what are you going to do with it? And you still need to have a process of converting that into knowledge. But yes, I think the 5G with the lower latency, especially, will help in those cases with industrial applications and factories. It will help also with some of the telehealth activities that they’re only talking about remote surgeries and those sorts of things. Again, that’s going to revolutionize, I think, a number of industries and a number of ways we do business today.
Sam Schutte: How long has 5G been in the works and what’s the time frame do you think for deploying it all out?
Mark Romito: Well I think, it’s been bandied about for quite a while, 5G. And we have some test markets right now. I think we’re in something like maybe 20 cities or something like that, throughout the country we have more. They’ll becoming online in 2020. Standards are I think not fully agreed upon as yet, but they’re getting close. I think that’s expected in 2020. But again, we’ve been doing some trials now over the last year. And expect to see more applications in 2020. But again, it will be, even those applications that we have existing now, are in parts of cities. And it’s still going to take a while for us to build out the network a little bit and get this out to a broader reach. But it may be like, I was talking about earlier, with the broadband situation, where you’re going to have a slower rollout to certain areas versus other. Again, based up the needs in the network.
Sam Schutte: Well and I don’t even know, are there any 5G devices that are already out there like future proofing them? Or is anyone selling 5G phones yet?
Mark Romito: I really don’t know the answer to that. [crosstalk 00:23:35] I’ve seen some names bantered about that they’re being ready and they’re wanting to introduce them soon. But I’m not sure. That’s out of my [inaudible 00:23:45].
Sam Schutte: Sure. Do you think, you mentioned roll outs and stuff to rural areas, a number of years ago I remember reading that all over different African countries, a lot of them were, they never had internet cable or they never had cable TV. They never had even telephone. They were just going directly to cell towers, because it’s like [crosstalk 00:24:09] trying to put things in the ground and go all that, cut through jungles and craziness, “We’re just going to put up cell towers.” It seems like as all this gets cheaper and so much faster and everything else, there’s probably no reason to have, I mean, if you’re talking about … I think you said two gigabyte, two gigabyte second speed or I’m not sure whatever the 5G standard is. If you’re talking about that there’s really no reason to have a wire at all. And so, is that something … ? And if you’re talking about, will there future evolution of broadband, cities or anywhere, I guess you probably wouldn’t even bother trying to run more broadband out to more remote areas, you would just [inaudible 00:24:49] in 5G because it’s so much faster.
Mark Romito: Well I think you’re touching on some things that everyone in the industry is looking at. But you got to keep a mind too that you’re talking about wire for what we call the last mile. There’s still going to be a lot of wire and a lot of cable out there.
Sam Schutte: Well sure.
Mark Romito: All those cell towers-
Sam Schutte: You have to talk to [crosstalk 00:25:08].
Mark Romito: … and all those small cells have to be connected by fiber. And, like you said, they have to talk to something. But I think you’re right. I think the opportunity’s there for certain cases to leapfrog, if you will, where they won’t necessarily need that kind of broadband build out. The options will be there with wireless.
Sam Schutte: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:25:30].
Mark Romito: Looking ahead, but we’re already through some of the federal funding, we’re able to offer fixed wireless in certain rural areas, where that basically puts a little mini antennae on the side of the house and it’s able to connect that way with the larger cell tower. It gives that a boost, it boosts the signal. But that’s called fixed wireless through some of the funding that we’re able to get from the federal government to expand that in those rural areas.
Sam Schutte: Okay. And how do you think the economy … we’ve had a pretty booming economy recently. But if you look over the last, say, 12 months, some folks have some concerns about economic slow downs and such. How do you think that affects all this 5G plan and just everything that you’re doing?
Mark Romito: I think at the end of the day all these things, the Internet of Things, smart cities, use of 5G and all that, you need to prove it in. And people may have concerns about the economy and when that happens they become less and less likely to take a risk or to try a new technology. But I think the big thing for us is to prove for them and to show them the value of it. The benefit of an Internet of Things solution for example. Or to show them how this will make them much more efficient and show them the cost savings. Because the economy can just give that general feeling that, “Gee, we need to hunker down right now, not take a risk, not do anything new, not try anything new,” and really the opportunities are starting to open up where they should continue to look at these things.
Mark Romito: But you saying that about the economy, I think cyber security seems to be more and more on people’s minds. And I don’t know if that’s with some of the interaction with some of the countries that we may not be on the greatest of terms with. I’m thinking of in terms of North Korea or China. There’s also some concerns about sourcing and making sure we have … do we have manufacturers and suppliers that will make the equipment we need in case of a international crisis.
Sam Schutte: Sure. Well or even just all the intellectual property issues around, you’re developing something new like 5G and then if you have it made in a country where that’s weak, are you giving it all away?
Mark Romito: Yeah, yeah. And I can’t remember the name of the Chinese company. But the thought is that some of their products may be somehow compromised in some sort of way. And there’s discussions about especially the smaller providers. How are they going to take that out of their networks and remove those servers from their network and replace them, will they get some sort of compensatory funding or something like that for that? We do not see that as a problem for our network but it could be a problem if a smaller provider when in hold, will seem ahead on that particular vendor.
Sam Schutte: Sure. So what are some other new areas of the business that you’re getting into and new projects you’re getting involved in?
Mark Romito: Well I’m not necessarily involved in these but two ares of the business that really do not fit what you normally think of when you think of AT&T I think is the entertainment business. We’ve purchased Warner Communications. And as a result we now I guess own Batman and that franchise. We’re more engaged in the Warner Brother movies and HBO, CNN, that sort of thing. So we’re becoming more involved in content, creating content. And it’s a whole new side of the business for us. The other are that I’ve seen that just doesn’t seem to necessarily fit our knitting, but when you think about it, it really does is our company called Xandr which is a advertising and analytics company. We’re again trying to use big data, understanding big data to better target advertising and that sort of thing. So it’s not your dad’s phone company anymore so to speak. We’re really engaged in a number of different things.
Sam Schutte: Well I think, like you told me earlier, AT&T is a technology company. It has a lot of different divisions, wireless is only one piece of it.
Mark Romito: That’s right.
Sam Schutte: What’s the really most personally rewarding project that you’ve worked on recently?
Mark Romito: I think that would have to be working with the AT&T foundation. I think it’s not only recently, but really probably the most rewarding project of my entire career, we have a program called Aspire which it’s an umbrella term for all the different activities we do with regard to education. In particularly high school graduation and a path for the future. And the AT&T foundation, the majority of its philanthropic activity is toward Aspire projects. So these would be things like mentoring or things like helping parents fill out all the required forms, FAFSA forms for entrance into college. I mean, there are nay number of things that can help young people, high school age, [inaudible 00:31:33] high school, but also develop that plan for future success. It exposed me to some things that I just never gave a lot of thought to prior to … I’m talking about things like the term called ACEs which is Adverse Childhood Events, and how that can affect a student.
Mark Romito: Things like a divorce, drug addiction, being alcoholic, living in an area where there’s a lot of gang activity. All of these things put these stressors on these young people that make it very, very difficult for them to stay focused on an education. And so as a result of my work with the AT&T foundation, I’ve been exposed not only to some great kids but great organizations that do work with these young people so they can get on the right path. And we think it’s very important not just for our country, we started this I guess 15 years ago or so with the [inaudible 00:32:37] PALs America’s Promise grad nation where they were saying that there were some high schools that were … kids were dropping out at a rate of like 60%. Almost 60% of the students on any given day might be there four years from now. They all dropped out.
Mark Romito: That’s shocking, when you think about it. Those probably young people that will need some sort of social service program to survive. They will have more difficulty being employed. They’re more likely to be imprisoned. All of these things and all these bad consequences. So not only for the country’s success, but for our own company’s success. I mean, we always need a pipeline of good employees. And we need people to be successful so they can purchase our products and services. So anyway, I just felt moved by that because my previous years in my career, I was pretty much focused on the government side of things and the regulatory side of things. I never really dealt much with the community aspects. But hitting those issues with the AT&T foundation and then just seeing how the AT&T foundation was willing to step up during the recent Dayton tornadoes and the mass shooting where they wanted to help and we were able to contribute to the tornado relief fund as well as the Oregon district tragedy fund. And we were able to help both of those.
Mark Romito: And it makes you feel good that that’s part of my job. Because I’m the interface with the foundation for my territory, for my 23 counties, that we do have an impact. We are helping people.
Sam Schutte: Probably a lot of folks don’t know that foundation exists or is active or about the stuff you’re doing so …
Mark Romito: Well we try to get the word out there occasionally but I do deal primarily with the social service agencies and the agencies that deal with the young people.
Sam Schutte: Yeah. That’s good to hear. Great. I mentioned earlier that we’re both in Rotary, Cincinnati Rotary club. And yesterday we heard a speaker from NKU talking about how really one of their biggest concerns was completion. So you’re taking about kids not finishing high school, but it’s a problem really for that whole eight year period of your life and that they have a real issue of kids going to one or two years of college, accumulating some debt, dropping out and pretty much getting nothing from their investment.
Sam Schutte: So it doesn’t necessarily even end with a high school diploma sometimes, that people hopefully they’re in a better spot to avoid truly negative consequences because they did graduate from high school. They certainly don’t get the benefit of a full college degree.
Mark Romito: Well that’s for sure. But the high school diploma is the bare minimum for the future. You need that to get to college. You need that if you want to move on into the military really. You need that really to just move forward even into a career position. Or even if you decide to go into a trade career. And all these are great options. All of them are great and valuable and valid options. But you need, just get that basic high school diploma and develop that plan for going forward.
Mark Romito: But you’re right. The whole thing making them sticky, so that they’ll stick around. So that they feel welcome and at the college level feel like, “I do belong here. ” It’s critical for them to keep up with it.
Sam Schutte: And so, speaking of Rotary, and how long have you been in the Rotary Club there?
Mark Romito: I’ve been in Rotary for about six years now.
Sam Schutte: Okay. So why do you keep coming back? What have you gotten out of being in a club?
Mark Romito: Well it started because my old boss was a Rotarian in the Columbus area. And he highly recommended it. Said that it would be a great thing to help and compliment my job, which I found that to be true. I’m aware of things that are going on in the community before a lot of other people are, because we have such great speakers. I have the opportunity to engage with some of those speakers. And also there’s that service element as well, which is important. I think our mutual friend [Gretchen Finneth 00:37:15] was the one that first introduced me to it. And I went to that. A friend of mine, [George Boyle 00:37:23] also spoke so highly of it that it was something I wanted to explore more and every week I learned something new. Every week I’d meet another Rotarian and had something in common with. And so it’s just it’s addicting.
Sam Schutte: Yeah. And Gretchen [inaudible 00:37:41] took me into the club as well actually. I’m curious, you know, because you work downtown. How long have you worked downtown for?
Mark Romito: Well I’ve worked downtown since the early 80s. My other-
Sam Schutte: Yeah, so-
Mark Romito: … position as well.
Sam Schutte: So have you found that being in the club means you just know a lot more people downtown in general? I’ve noticed that. Because I knew no one down there. And then now I just run into people all the time like, “Oh, there’s so and so.” Have you noticed that as well?
Mark Romito: Oh yeah. And if you go into a coffee shop in the morning for a meeting, a lot of folks do that. And you look around for the person you’re supposed to meet with, but I’ll see several Rotarians doing the same thing. There’s people you recognize all the time downtown at the coffee shops, wherever.
Sam Schutte: Yeah. What do you think about just the downtown work environment in general? That changed over the last decade or so. What are your thoughts on that?
Mark Romito: I expect downtown is still an exciting place to work. I wish it had more shopping options. With Macy’s closing it’s a little more difficult. There’s not really a lot of retail downtown to make that piece of it worthwhile. But there’s still that excitement. We just recently Marty Brennaman’s last ball game.
Sam Schutte: Yesterday.
Mark Romito: What we called the last ball game. His last ball game. And you could still feel the excitement walking around downtown. There was the crowd, the people wearing red. It just is a neat place to work. I think it has a certain unique energy to it.
Sam Schutte: I agree. And I think it is too bad regarding the retail. Hopefully that will change and need to be a different kind of retail but the whole going downtown to Christmas shop or whatever, you can’t really do that anymore. And I used to do that for fun. “Let’s go downtown and do our Christmas shopping down there,” for instance. And that was in Tower Place mall and stuff, back when that was around. But certainly that landscape has changed a lot. And it may have nothing to do with downtown, it might have everything to do with Amazon.
Mark Romito: Well that’s true. That’s true. But we did the same thing. It was an outing to go downtown to go shopping, to see the Christmas displays, that sort of thing. It’s a lot of fun. And it still is a lot of fun. But I think the retail is an issue that is recognized by a lot of people and how it’s going to be addressed, I don’t know. But I know it’s on people’s list of things to look at.
Sam Schutte: In regards to AT&T, so how long did you say you’d been there for?
Mark Romito: I am going on nine years at AT&T.
Sam Schutte: Nine years. Okay. So I’m curious, what are some of the benefits you think for working for AT&T as a massive organization, I don’t even know how many employees they have.
Mark Romito: We have over 260,000 employees.
Sam Schutte: Yeah, massive. I think that-
Mark Romito: It’s mind boggling.
Sam Schutte: Because I think the US Postal Service has around 100,000. So more than twice as many as the Postal Service. What are some of the benefits you think are working for … what are upsides and what are the downsides and what are the challenges maybe of working for an organization that size?
Mark Romito: Well I think on the upside you have a level of expertise that is just unparalleled. The quality of people we have working for AT&T and their knowledge is just amazing to me. The other thing I think is exciting is you could almost name any issue and someone in AT&T is looking at it and working on it and trying to develop it. And it’s just an exciting time to be in a company like AT&T who is working with small vendors and other partners to develop some of the things we were talking about earlier. The Internet of Things, smart cities and that sort of thing. We have these foundries, we call them foundries but they’re like think tanks on steroids, if you will. Where they bring together the marketing people, the engineering people and [crosstalk 00:42:04]-
Sam Schutte: It’s like an incubator or something.
Mark Romito: Yeah. They bring an idea, they focus on an idea, it could be connected cars or whatever the issue is and then they just think about it and try to develop products and services around it, try to bring those to market faster. It’s just an exciting place because of the variety of work. And again, so many things going on. It’s just volunteer activities with the employees. We just started a initiative not too long ago in over 20 cities called AT&T Believes, our Believe initiative. These are grass root employee selected initiatives that AT&T employees in various cities want to engage in. For example, in Chicago they wanted to address the neighborhoods that were most affected by unemployment and by gun violence.
Mark Romito: So they focus on those. A lot of our volunteer activities are focused in there. In Cleveland we’ve adopted digital literacy is the issue we want to focus on. So I guess I just bring that up because there’s just all these opportunities to address the whole person. Your philanthropic side, your work side, your thirst for knowledge. There’s always something learn, in order to learn something new coming down the pipe. That’s the benefit.
Mark Romito: One the downside I think a company that big can be hard to get everybody on the same page. I think it can be hard too with communication. I cut my teeth on a company where if I needed an answer from somebody and I could call them, I could email them, if I had to I could go to their office. Now with employees, we have employees all across the country. And sometimes finding the right person can be difficult. And if you have difficulty reaching that person or getting a response, that can be a challenge as well at times. Not all the time. But I’m just saying on those few occasions because-
Sam Schutte: You can’t just go down the hall.
Mark Romito: … you can’t go down the hall.
Sam Schutte: [crosstalk 00:44:20].
Mark Romito: And you can’t run into them at the water cooler. Which sometimes some of the best ideas come from that. But you can’t have that. In every situation. And Cincinnati is an area where, in this market, we don’t have a huge number of employees, a lot of the employees have the opportunity to work from home. And a lot of them are like me, they may be sales people or in some other capacity where they’re traveling a lot. And so sometimes you don’t have that large group of people together in one place. Now there’s other places like Atlanta, Dallas. That’s where you have more concentration of employees. And Cleveland too to a certain extent.
Sam Schutte: It’s interesting you mention just all of the philanthropic stuff going on because I think a company that size, there’s no reason to ever get bored. Because it’s like there’s always new to do. And a friend of mine worked for another really large organization and she was a CPA and she was just doing their normal business CPA things, but they had a foundational, not-for-profit service thing going on. Like what you’ve talked about. So she actually moved into that to manage their fundraising numbers and all that accounting, which was very fulfilling compared to the general business accounting stuff. But didn’t have to leave the company or anything, because it was within their walls. So that’s a nice benefit to have that not all companies can offer, for sure.
Mark Romito: And the opportunity, if you wanted to go to another state, the opportunities there within AT&T. That’s not my particular goal at my stage of my career but I could definitely see, and I have seen, a number of young people who come into the company and they find the opportunity for advancement or for a new job in a new location. And there’s a lot of opportunities if you’re willing to go to where de need is.
Sam Schutte: Definitely. Well Mark, so if folks want to reach out to you at all or talk to you about your work in external affairs or any of that stuff AT&T is working on, what’s the best for people to contact you?
Mark Romito: I would say they should contact me at my email, that’s Mark, M-A-R-K, dot Romito, R-O-M-I-T-O, at ATT dot com. And I’ll be glad to chat with them.
Sam Schutte: Yeah. And anybody who has an interest in what AT&T is doing or-
Mark Romito: Absolutely.
Sam Schutte: … just working with local governments and counties to do what you do. I know there’s a lot of folks from all kinds of industries that need to do that sort of work. So certainly you’d have some good thoughts on it. Yeah, I appreciate you coming on the show.
Mark Romito: Yeah. And you know that’s the business I’m in, external affairs. So they’re all external stakeholders and so it’s just part of my job to meet with them, talk with them to help them in any way.
Sam Schutte: Absolutely. Yeah, well thank you for coming on the show.
Mark Romito: I appreciate the opportunity. Thank Sam.
Sam Schutte: It’s been great to learn about what your company’s doing and your background and it’s been a pleasure.
Mark Romito: I enjoyed it was well, thanks.
Sam Schutte: Okay. Thanks.