Mobile operator CEOs play up harmony

Sprint, Verizon and AT&T keynote speeches ignored intense competition and legal strife

The CEOs of the three largest U.S. mobile operators largely ignored their fierce competition on Tuesday, delivering one keynote speech after another at CTIA Wireless Enterprise & Applications that emphasized the benefits of the wireless industry as a whole.

Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse opened his comparing AT&T's Ralph De La Vega to actor John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, and de la Vega later called Hesse the best actor in the wireless industry. But there were few other signs of the legal battle over AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA, which Sprint has challenged in court, nor the three-way race to provide faster mobile networks.

On Tuesday, Verizon announced its LTE (Long Term Evolution) network will reach 178 markets by Nov. 17, putting it more than one month ahead of schedule. AT&T launched its first LTE networks in five cities last month but pushes "4G speeds" on its earlier HSPA+ (High-Speed Packet Access) network. Sprint, currently using partner Clearwire for 4G WiMax service, plans to split from that company on LTE, each building their own networks.

The format of the keynote avoided the open rancor that took place at the CTIA Wireless show in March in Orlando, where the top carrier executives sat down together a day after AT&T and T-Mobile announced the deal. Hesse, de la Vega and Verizon's Dan Mead spoke in sequence, introduced by CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent.

Their speeches echoed the up-with-wireless tone of Largent's comments, in which he highlighted the results of a CTIA survey that showed wireless connections in the U.S. now exceed the population. The CEOs emphasized the economic benefits of wireless and potential of machine-to-machine applications, especially in health care.

"We are, arguably, in the most important industry in the world," said Hesse, who in addition to leading Sprint is the chairman of CTIA for 2011. In addition to the virtues of mobile in aiding in natural disasters and helping to drive the Arab Spring democracy movement, the industry benefits the U.S. economy, he said.

"Our industry can help to get our economy back on track," Hesse said. "Mobile has a direct and powerful impact on the efficiency, productivity [and] economic performance of almost any size business in this country."

As an example, he said remote monitoring of patients and home caregivers cuts health care costs by US$20 billion per year and "hidden" costs such as people keeping tabs on elderly parents by $363 billion.

De La Vega and Mead also highlighted M2M. De La Vega said there are 100 million cellular M2M connections in the world and 13 million of them were on AT&T's network in the second quarter. Those include the Amazon Kindle, for which AT&T provides connectivity, and other e-readers. But he also showed videos of systems such as the Amber Alert GPS for tracking children and a device that can be hung around an elderly person's neck to detect a fall and call for help.

Verizon's Mead also pulled out examples of mobile's good works, such as a wireless robot avatar that goes to school for a boy in Texas who can't leave his room because he has virtually no immune system.

Mead emphasized the carriers' cooperative spirit, which he said has allowed roaming and text-messaging interoperability and the entry of "the companies the designed the two most important operating systems in the world today" -- without mentioning Apple and Google by name.

"Cooperation has allowed all of us in the wireless industry to come a very long way in a very short period of time," Mead said. "Progress is going to require much more of the same."

CTIA Wireless Enterprise & Applications continues through Thursday.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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