CTIA day 1: Where's T-Mobile; talk of spectrum crunch

After AT&T announced plan to acquire T-Mobile, latter is eerily missing from major discussions at industry's biggest showcase. And execs again highlight need for more wireless spectrum.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

ORLANDO, Fla.--Two big takeaways from day 1 of the CTIA 2011 trade show here:

  1. There are essentially three major U.S. carriers now: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint Nextel. T-Mobile's presence here is minor.
  2. Carriers need more wireless spectrum.

To the first point: AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA was announced just this past Sunday and it still needs to go through a stringent regulatory approval process. But judging from the CTIA show, the No. 4 U.S. Wireless carrier seems largely left out of the industry discussion.

From left to right: Verizon Communications CTO Tony Melone; AT&T CTO John Donovan; Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks at Sprint Nextel; and former Verizon exec Denny Strigl discuss spectrum issues at the CTIA 2011 show. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

On the CEO panel this morning with CNBC's Jim Cramer, and in a CTO panel this afternoon hosted by former Verizon Wireless exec Denny Strigl, T-Mobile was noticeably absent. T-Mobile USA's CEO was scheduled to be onstage with the other CEOs this morning but canceled after the announcement was public. T-Mobile also canceled several appointments with journalists who were scheduled to talk to top execs here at the show.

It's too early to say if or how T-Mobile's marketing plans will change as the deal is evaluated over the next year. The company still announced new handsets at CTIA, including a new Android-based Sidekick and the latest G-series Android phone. And as far as the company's legions of product managers are concerned, it's business as usual.

"We're just going to keep delivering the products and services our customers want," said Tom Harlin, a senior public relations manager for T-Mobile USA. "Other than that, I can't really say any more."

As for the second main point: Both CEOs and CTOs here said today that finding more spectrum and putting that spectrum to use is crucial if the industry is expected to grow.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse called spectrum the oxygen of the wireless industry. And he said the industry needs more of it, if it hopes to keep growing. AT&T Wireless head Ralph de la Vega said spectrum was one of the main reasons the carrier wants to buy T-Mobile USA.

In an afternoon panel of top tech gurus from the major carriers, John Donavan, CTO for AT&T; Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks at Sprint Nextel; and Tony Melone, CTO of Verizon Communications told a packed room that even with efficient use of spectrum, new network designs, and offloading techniques, more spectrum is needed.

"At almost every point in our industry's history when we want to grow the business, we need more spectrum," Melone said. "With that said, we can do a lot of work to get as much out of the spectrum we have now. (At Verizon) we feel good about our position for the next three to five years. But is that it for us? No."

While Melone feels strongly about using spectrum efficiently, he wasn't keen on the idea of sharing spectrum with competitors.

"I'd answer that question the same way I'd answer a question about network sharing: Only over my dead body," he said. "In all seriousness, the ability to share is easier said than done."

He said spectrum sharing would introduce a lot of complexity into the network. And once that happens, he said, it's very hard for a carrier such as Verizon to maintain its focus on reliability and quality.

AT&T's Donovan mostly agreed.

"Like Tony (Melone) said, the overhead that is necessary to manage spectrum-sharing puts a burden on quality of service and network management," he said. "When you load the networks heavily with traffic, you put your reputation and assets on the line."

Sprint's Azzi had a different opinion. He said Sprint is used to sharing its network resources. Sprint has long been a wholesale provider of network service to several Mobile Virtual Network Operators. The company also has a joint venture with Clearwire, in which the two companies share their spectrum assets. And its partner cable providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable resell the Clearwire WiMax service.

"Spectrum by itself doesn't do us any good," Azzi said. "You need to enable it. And one way to do this is to try different arrangements, such as the one we have with Clearwire. It's a very different kind of relationship, but it's one that works for us."

Meanwhile Azzi echoed Melone of Verizon's sentiments about using spectrum more efficiently.

"We are well positioned with Clearwire in terms of spectrum," he said. 'But forever is a long time. We think the FCC needs to continue to look for spectrum to clear. And in the meantime, we need to make intelligent use of what we've got. It's an obligation we all have."