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Stodgy old telcos? Not us, carriers blast at CES

The carriers have amped up their presence at the technology conference in an effort to be known as more than just old phone companies.

Ralph de la Vega (from left), AT&T's head of consumer and mobility, HTC CEO Peter Chou, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer share a laugh onstage at AT&T's sidekick summit in Vegas right before CES. Corinne Schulze/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Who says CES is becoming irrelevant? Certainly not the wireless carriers.

At a time when some companies are scaling back or skipping CES altogether, the telecoms have actually stepped up their presence. AT&T bulked up its product line with the announcement of a slew of 4G LTE products. Verizon Wireless expanded the size of its booth this year and had a notable presence on a keynote panel. Meanwhile, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile both hosted parties at the conference.

The fact that the carriers have been upping their presence at CES illustrates the importance of having a voice in the still high-profile event. The carriers have traditionally used either their own events or CTIA Wireless, a mobile industry conference, as an outlet for announcements. But with CES, they've recognized that they get a more mainstream platform.

"It has to do with the fact that CES is a lifestyle show, and the carriers feel they have a meaningful role there," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

AT&T has had a major presence at CES, in its own way. Over the past three years, the company has taken advantage of the enormous popularity of CES by hosting its own developer summit, held a day before CES officially starts. AT&T's summit is at the Palms hotel, technically separate from the CES facilities at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Venetian, but AT&T's event still draws big crowds.

Last year, AT&T used its sidekick summit to announce its plans to go to 4G, initially by rebranding its HSPA+ network, but ultimately through an accelerated deployment of its LTE network. This year, the company used the event to announce a lineup of a half-dozen 4G LTE devices. At the same event, Ralph de la Vega, head of AT&T's consumer and mobility business, teased the Nokia Windows Phone alongside Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. (Nokia later showed off the Lumia 900 at its own CES press conference.)

"We view CES as an opportunity to showcase our lineup of the latest devices and services, while also giving our developer partners more resources to create amazing apps," said AT&T representative Mark Siegel.

Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, came back from its freshman outing at CES last year with a larger booth on the show floor for 2012. Verizon's John Stratton, head of the company's newly formed enterprise unit, also participated in a CES keynote panel this year.

"Verizon's message is: Yes, we're a network company, but we're more than that. We're a tech innovator," said Praveen Atreya, director of Verizon's LTE Innovation Center.

Verizon's booth was a showcase of products that have come out of its LTE Innovation Center.

But CES 2011 was also a big one for Verizon. While Verizon had launched its 4G LTE network a few weeks before the show, the company used CES as a coming out party for its service, parading 10 devices at a splashy event. And for the first time, Verizon hosted a booth at the show.

"Some of what you see here comes from the connections made at CES last year," Atreya said in an interview with CNET.

T-Mobile USA, meanwhile, is using CES as a platform to re-embrace its independence after a tumultuous nine months, while announcing a new Samsung smartphone and an upgrade to its Web-based messaging and voice service.

"We're alive, and back to challenge the market," T-Mobile CEO Philipp Humm said during the carrier's CES event.

Sprint kicked off its own 4G LTE campaign at CES this week with the announcement of three 4G LTE devices, including the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung, the LG Viper, and a mobile hotspot that can run on its 3G, WiMax, and LTE networks. The company also held a splashy event at the Tao nightclub in the Venetian hotel to boast of its presence here.

Companies are forced to go big at CES to create the perception of success. And it's critical that the carriers make their move to control the minds and hearts of consumers before an Apple or Google succeeds in doing so.

"It's anybody's game, and the carriers want to make sure you know they're in it," Lopez said.