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Running with wireless

A former congressman and NFL Hall of Famer, Steve Largent now heads the cell phone industry's chief lobbying group.

Steve Largent is accustomed to pressure and dealing with complex matters.

During a 14-year National Football League career as a wide receiver, he had to learn dozens of different pass routes and dissect defenses literally on the fly. Later on, as a U.S. congressman, he had to get his arms around the sundry complexities of the backroom politics that shapes legislative policy.

But all that didn't prepare him for his first real conversation about cell phones shortly after taking over for Tom Wheeler as chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, the cell phone industry's chief lobbying group. Imagine, he said, listening to a sentence in which there are more abbreviations than actual words.

Despite being a relative newbie to the cell phone business, Largent is nonetheless settling into the job in an industry that never met an abbreviation it didn't like. With the CTIA show taking place this week, Largent spoke to CNET about the latest technology and business developments shaping the industry.

Q: Are U.S. cell phone providers lagging behind their European and Asian competitors in rolling out wireless broadband networks?
A: The U.S. has been slow to roll out 3G services, yes. One reason is that it's been difficult to show a sustainable business model for the amount of capital investment it calls for. After all, there's been a contraction in the economy. But there are more contracts being signed now for 3G gear, and we're starting to come out of this economic slump. We're starting to see capital investment in the high-tech industry, especially wireless.

Is the cell phone industry united on a single way to fix interference problems?
No. This is a difficult battle we're waging; it's against one of our own prized members, Nextel Communications. I hate getting involved in issues like this. The CTIA's position is we believe we can resolve the public safety interference differently from Nextel's own proposal.

Have you been putting pressure on Nextel to drop its competing proposal for ending the interference?
We don't work that way.

Will carriers, especially in rural areas, meet the federal mandate for locating every caller that dials 911?
The next deadline is the end of 2005, and we're going to see delays again, I believe. But this 911 issue is a three-legged stool. The 911 call centers and police departments are also involved here, and unlike cell phone service providers, there's no regulatory group holding their feet to the fire. The technology won't work if these other two groups aren't ready. My prognosis for the other two groups? Cell phone service providers have made more progress.

Is it fair to say that wireless data services, so important to carriers' future, still aren't interesting to very many consumers?
We're still talking about how we accelerate the wireless data revolution. We are behind some countries, including Korea, but we're not lagging by much. What's driving this slow acceleration? Consumers haven't figured it out yet. They haven't figured out what they want or need. But as soon as they figure it out, we'll reach that tipping point. It's hard to say when that will be, though.

Doesn't the fact that U.S. carriers have all adopted different interoperable technologies have something to do with that?
I'm not sure it's a good thing to unite around one standard. Diverse cell phone standards in the United States have served and benefited customers because carriers are exploiting the special qualities of each standard to compete against each other. That's very beneficial for the consumer.

Isn't overall revenue from these services relatively small, even after years of service offerings?
Total wireless data revenue in United States was $700 million in 2002 and that increased to $1.2 billion in 2003. That's a fraction of the total market in wireless, but it continues to grow. It's coming.

What happened to Wi-Fi? It used to be a big part of the CTIA trade shows, with at least a keynote or two devoted to the topic. But at this year's show, Wi-Fi executives aren't keynoting.
The exciting part of the wireless industry is there are so many different facets, and they all can't possibly fit onto the keynote stage. This year, we're trying to highlight mobile music, entertainment gaming and international flair. I don't think you can read anything into who the keynote speakers are.

What is one of those technologies you're talking about?
Wireless broadband is one candidate. There are others. This is how we will drive the revolution, by evolving the data services market both in the enterprise and the general consumer markets. What we are trying to find now is the applications beyond text messages and downloadable ring tones and games that will create the hunger among consumers.

Isn't the merger of AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless bad news for network equipment makers and handset makers? Won't they have one less customer as a result?
The ball that we focus on here in this issue is growing a consumer base. Our main goal is to keep growing and what is the best policy to pursue to make that happen. As long as there aren't fewer customers, there won't be much impact from consolidation.

How are cell phone providers progressing in meeting federal wiretapping statutes?
We are committed to being totally compliant with the spirit of the law. But we're trying to do it in a way that's not invasive to consumers' privacy. We want to fully comply with the spirit and request of law enforcement.

What cell phone do you have?
Everybody's. There's a Motorola, a Handspring, a Siemens, a BlackBerry--I just kind of rotate. They are sort of like mood rings for me.