Verizon CEO Seidenberg takes the ‘long view’ on digital media revolution

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USC Annenberg speaker series explores visionary executives' ideas for media world of 2020

By Gretchen Parker

Ivan Seidenberg has made a career of building and envisioning the telecommunications of today, but he’s always kept an eye toward the future.

seiden3At the second installment of USC Annenberg’s symposium series “Art of the Long View” on Thursday night, the CEO and chairman of Verizon Communications shared his thoughts on the pressing issues for telecom companies, consumers and content makers. Led by communication professor Jonathan Taplin (pictured, at right), the forums aim to spark a conversation among global communication leaders, policy makers and academics about the long-term future of media.

As his company waits to hear whether it will be the next carrier for Apple's popular iPhone, Seidenberg told his audience that he sees enormous possibilities for next-generation networks, including 3-D programming, personalized high-definition video delivered to cell phones, personal media players – and even surgery done remotely via imaging and robots.

Seidenberg also shared his views on key issues facing his and other industries, including net neutrality, "bit hogs" and Internet piracy.

He even gave students a taste of the philosophies he uses to guide his own life. He distilled his 44-year career (which started with a job as a cable splicer’s assistant) into a few lines of advice, including: "Don't just reprocess what everybody tells you. Add some unique value to it.”

Highlights of Seidenberg’s answers to questions from Taplin:

On net neutrality, a principle that faced a setback in a federal appeals court earlier this week
(Read journalism professor Andrew Lih's take on the ruling)

“The way I look at this issue is, we start out with the idea that net neutrality is a good thing. You should be able to get any information, go anywhere you want on the net, and you shouldn’t be hassled. We worry that sometimes issues surface where the cure turns out to be a lot worse than the disease… We’re concerned that the government wants to regulate every conceivable issue that could surface on the issue of access, when in fact the market is going to eliminate those barriers over time, and they’re doing it pretty fast…. We should have rules and principles around not [discriminating] getting to Web sites, but we have to be careful not to tell carriers how to run their business in order to manage the network.”

On Verizon gaining carriage rights to the iPhone

“We have no answer to this question. We have expressed an interest to Apple about carrying it. We think our network could handle it. Apple kind of walks to its own beat and hasn't decided whether it’s going to make an iPhone for the 3G network that we run. So we’re working hard with them on getting up to speed on building a 4G phone. Whether they’ll do a 3G – there are reports in the paper that they’re working on it – and I hope that’s true.”

 Seidenberg and Dean Ernest J. Wilson III
On Google and China

“Google knew what it was doing when it got into it in the first place. That was a choice they made. The fact that they ran into this issue a couple of years into the process – they should have known that.”

On what people will be doing on their cell phones in the near future

“One simple way of thinking about it is, we had this view of 100 megabits to the home and 20 megabits to the handset. That’s a lot of bandwidth to the handset. What would they do with it? We didn’t know. But Google and Apple figured out how to fill it up pretty quickly… this fourth generation is going to produce 10 megabits on average, and peak speed could be 15 megabits. You only need six to seven for a high-definition TV phone. You have the capability of getting HDTV resolution on a little screen. The last two minutes of the Laker game, or someone sends you medical records – there are all sorts of things you can do with it. Every interaction with your friends is video. Video texting instead of just texting. The whole model changes, and the whole human interaction changes.”

On why video options are about to get a lot more personal, but why people shouldn't expect "a la carte" pricing

“We offer 500 channels. We put it in a bundle and charge $99. Some people say I don’t want 500 channels and we say, ‘Well, that’s what we’re offering you.’ Look, that’s going to change. The Internet will break this down. A la carte is too extreme. There will always be a need for bundling certain things…. We have to get to a point where the model changes and becomes more consumer-driven than industry-driven. The industry drives the architecture of the products we serve. Over time, I think the consumer will drive the architecture of it.”

On how Verizon made the prescient decision to develop fiber-optic delivery to homes

“I think every student in here and every faculty member would agree that you never have enough bandwidth. There is always a need for more speed and more capacity. We started out with the idea that we were a telephone company – basically a copper architecture that wires into your home and has limited capability…. For us it was a simple situation of survival. Do we do it now, or do we do it later?”

On seeing the future

“What we’re good at is building the network. When we look back 10 years, we said, ‘What do we think people are going to do with this bandwidth?’ We got it all wrong. They've done much more with it. I don't think there's anything you can't do…. The trick for us is to get this technology out there and let others innovate on top of it and create the uses for it. I don’t know if this is actually possible, but I’ll make it up. If you simulate an operating room, someone could actually do an operation using a robot. They could be sitting here in LA, and the operation could be done in Chicago. There seems to be no limit to what the imagination can drive people to do. The important thing is not have the people who build it define what the uses will be.”

On building America’s economic future

“We have to figure out how, as a country, to get our confidence back. With the real estate and the housing bubble, we lost 5 million jobs…. The problem is we haven't given the country confidence that we’re focused on helping people in Detroit, helping people in the service industry figure out how we’re going to transition from the work we used to do to the work we need to do, going forward. We need to get on this issue, and it’s not simple. Because not everyone is going to be a knowledge worker in 20 years. We have to figure out smarter ways of giving people jobs that give the country confidence that we have jobs at all levels of the spectrum. So everyone doesn’t have to be a Ph.D."

Life advice and how to be a successful innovator

“As students, learn what you love and be the best at it. Don’t just reprocess what everyone tells you. Add some unique value to it.”

“Another thing I always tell my employees is someone always is watching you. It took me a long time to realize someone is always watching me. Everything you do on the job, off the job -- people watch. People watch how you talk, what you say, what your statements are. The third thing is don’t be high maintenance. Guys like me, if you’re high maintenance, we get rid of you. We’ll transfer you here and there and give you lots of other projects.”

“You’ve got to be a little bit flexible and a little bit lucky, and you have to go where the work is. I’ve been in the business 44 years with the same company. I moved eight or nine times. I’ve had about 25 jobs and coincidentally, 17 or 18 of those jobs – I was the first one in that job. So I sort of moused around and worked on things that people said, ‘We don’t really know what you want to do here, but go do it.’ So you take some chances and do some things. So when you’re young, you want to create your own thing. When young people come into our office the first thing they tell us is we’re all dumb and they know all the answers. The answer is not to tell them not to do it, but to create the structure. So if you’re a person who empowers other people, you’ll find you’ll be empowered by the organization…. When you make the team better than you are individually, when you make yourself part of something bigger, you win. It works every time. I guarantee it.”

The “Art of the Long View” forums are a way not only to build partnerships that cross industry and university lines but also to explore long-term consequences and plans for the communication revolution, Taplin said. It’s a service that no one else is providing, at a time when the pressure to focus on quarterly earnings is more intense than ever.

“We seek to provide a counter-narrative – a forum to discuss the future of communications and journalism with a time frame of 12 years, not 12 weeks,” Taplin said.

Upcoming programs will focus on the long-term future of advertising, newspaper companies, the music business, the movie business, television drama and online social networks.