AT&T Mobility CEO: Shared data plan coming

Ralph de la Vega is grilled on data connection and call quality. Also: why he thinks the T-Mobile merger is good for consumers, and a kicker--shared data plans for multi-device customers.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega takes the stage today at the D9 conference. Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

Editor's note: At the end of a discussion on stage at the D9 tech conference, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega confirmed that the company is working on a shared data plan for multi-device customers. That news is at the end of this as-it-happened interview report.

PALOS VERDES, Calif.--Data usage is growing so fast, AT&T had no choice but to buy up another carrier (T-Mobile) to keep up with demand, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega said at the D9 conference today. Also, overlaying the networks in dense cities (like San Francisco and New York) will give the combined network a 5- to 10-year head start compared to building out a non-merged network, he said.

But "Why should we believe that AT&T is competent to manage the biggest carrier in the United States, reducing competition, when you are consistently rated as providing the worst service?" D9 host Walt Mossberg asked.

"We're improving. And what we've seen in data growth is something probably no other carrier in the world has ever seen. We have the most smartphones of any carrier in the world," de la Vega replied. AT&T has 40Mhz of bandwidth in New York, the equivalent of four carriers on one network, and is adding another 10Mhz. "We're not happy where we are, and we're going to continue to make it better."

Beyond the current networks that people use, de la Vega added, "We're going to take LTE to 97 percent of people in the country."

Regarding the merger and the reduction of competition, de la Vega parries: Most consumers, he said, can choose from five mobile carriers. De la Vega likes to remind people that Metro PCS is a viable competitor in this space (most commentators neglect to mention it when talking about the top carriers: Verizon, Spring, AT&T, and T-Mobile). "You'll find that the U.S. is the most dynamic, the most competitive market in the world," in mobile, he said.

Sprint, combined with Clearwire (which Sprint owns a controlling interest in), also has more spectrum than any carrier in the country. "Spectrum is the lifeblood" for carriers, he said.

Mossberg continued to hammer on the quality of Verizon and Sprint data connections compared to AT&T. "You lag them tremendously in deploying LTE. Why should the U.S. government say this company deserves to control the market?"

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De la Vega said he's now comfortable with LTE (AT&T previously backed HSPDA) and reiterated his company's commitment to roll out the technology and catch up with Verizon.

And what will happen to consumer prices for wireless access? "The price we charge for a megabyte of data over the past five years, has dropped 90 percent."

Mossberg asked, as a reader here may well also, "Why hasn't my bill dropped?"

"Customers are using more," de la Vega said.

D9 co-host Kara Swisher asked why call quality (especially in San Francisco) is so poor on AT&T. San Francisco needs new antennas for 4G, he said, and "San Francisco makes it difficult to replace antennas. It will take anywhere from two to three times longer to get cell sites done," compared to other cities. So AT&T is building out new distributed antenna systems, going into highrises and condominiums to build short-range antennas to get around the issue, he said.

In New York, de la Vega reiterated, it's a question of increasing bandwidth, which AT&T is doing. But, he says, "phones today, when they scan for frequencies, are programmed to scan up to three. Now we're going to have five."

"I'm very unhappy," about the call quality situation, he reassured.

"What is the role of the carrier," Mossberg asked, in an ecosystem also inhabited by hardware manufacturers and operating system brands? "We work with various players to bring innovation to market," de le Vega said.

Mossberg and Swisher were skeptical. Didn't Apple say, "Don't touch this?" they asked. Actually, de la Vega said, AT&T and Apple collaborated on the development of the phone. (Although, clearly, not on the operating system or the user experience.)

Getting into the new, different economic model on tablets, which are mostly contract-free when they are cellular-equipped, de la Vega said, "Our view is, if you want to buy it by the day or the session, that's fine with us." Mossberg pressed, "Do you think people will want this kind of ability on all their devices?"

"That jury is still out," de la Vega said. "But once you have so many devices that you carry, you may want a shared plan. The more focus groups we do, the more we think that may be the way. We're working on it. It will be soon."

 

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