For AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, there’s no place more interesting than New York City.

“We always hear that New York is the city that never sleeps, and if you want to know what you’re doing when you’re not sleeping, come look at our traffic and I’ll tell you what you’re doing, “Stephenson said at a breakfast event this morning sponsored by the Association for a Better New York.

While the rise of the smartphone has meant more cash and customers for AT&T, it’s also meant a lot more network traffic, and in turn, big engineering challenges. This has been especially true for New York City, which Stephenson says has challenged AT&T’s network in unprecedented ways.

“There is an unbelievable concentration of very sophisticated mobile data users in this city,” Stephenson said.

The really interesting thing about that concentration, however, is that it’s mostly vertical. Most New Yorkers live in apartment buildings, after all.

Not only has that forced AT&T to rethink the way it builds its network in the city, but it’s also allowed it to take what it’s learned in New York and apply it to urban areas in China and India.

“This city is a living laboratory for telecom engineers,” Stephenson said.

At the core of AT&T’s future network buildouts are things like Distributed Antenna systems, which are installed inside buildings in an effort to improve and extend connectivity. AT&T plans to spend $14 billion building out its network over the next three years. It’s no small undertaking, but Stephenson is convinced that it will be worth it.

“Wireless networks will be the railroads and highways of the digital age,” he said.

Photo: Ricardo Bilton/VentureBeat