Wireless Carrier CEOs Focus on Spectrum and Trust

Leading mobile carrier CEOs at CTIA Wireless 2012 say trust is central to consumer/carrier success and argue for improved customer relations. The looming shortage of spectrum and the need for more wireless capacity was also a hot topic of discussion. Meanwhile, T-Mobile is trying to get back in the pack.

NEW ORLEANS -- In an industry marked by heated rivalry and frequent corporate sniping, the top executives at the nation's leading wireless carriers are united in their call for policymakers to free up more spectrum to boost the capacity in their mobile broadband networks.

Slideshow: CTIA Wireless 2012 Product Primer

During a keynote session at CTIA Wireless 2012, the CEOs of Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile USA and AT&T took turns on stage to offer their chief priorities and updates on internal projects.

Aside from the drive to expand and improve 4G LTE coverage, no refrain was heard more often than the need for wireless spectrum to help the carriers cope with the spiking data volumes that users are generating with a burgeoning crop of tablets and smartphones.

"On our new 4G LTE network, after just six months, data usage was at levels that were not reached for years on our third-generation network," said Dan Mead, head of Verizon Wireless, who noted that the data volume traversing his company's network has doubled each of the last three years.

Mead also put in a plug for the $3.6 billion deal that Verizon is trying to move through a regulatory review that would see the company obtain a set of spectrum licenses from a consortium of leading cable companies, saying that the spectrum would be put to use in short order should the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice each bless the transaction.

More recently, Verizon announced that if it should win approval of the deal with the cable companies, it would sell off some of its current spectrum holdings that it would no longer need, a move that critics have argued shows that Verizon has been warehousing spectrum, but that Mead defended as a prudent move for his company that would also help the broader wireless ecosystem.

"No one is forcing us to sell those licenses," Mead said. "We believe both of these initiatives demonstrate we're responsible stewards of these high-value and extremely costly assets."

Sprint's Dan Hesse, though equally hungry for spectrum, focused his remarks on the tarnished image the wireless industry has in the public imagination, stressing the need for carriers both to rehabilitate their reputations and take steps to shore up security, safety and privacy.

Hesse noted in a 2012 ranking of industries from the Reputation Institute, the wireless sector netted the lowest score of any major category, pointing out that wireless was viewed as less reputable than the cable and oil industries, hardly the darlings of Americans consumers.

"With the issues lying ahead [for] our industry -- financial and regulatory -- it has never been more important for wireless carriers to gain the public's trust.

Hesse took the industry to task for dissembling in public statements, flooding the airwaves with misleading or confusing claims about rivals' speeds and networks, and failing to produce the sort of marketing and branding that positions wireless carriers as allies of their customers. But he also argued that some of that blame was mislaid, owing perhaps to poor communication efforts on the part of carriers, but also overlooking the staggering degree to which users have come to rely on smartphones in virtually every aspect of their lives, from banking to travel, workplace productivity to social networking.

"This is a remarkable level of achievement and innovation, perhaps unprecedented, in business history, yet our reputation falls woefully short, especially when compared to how the public looks at companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and some other tech companies," he said, referring to them as "over-the-top players" that have amassed enormous profits thanks in large part to the capital expenditures Sprint and others have made to build their networks.

"I focus so intensely on reputation because the future of our industry is about personalization -- how customers use the technology we provide and make it useful and relevant to them," Hesse said. "Trust has never been more important for any industry because there has never been a device in human history more personal than the smartphone."

Meanwhile, Philipp Humm, CEO of T-Mobile USA, sought to position his firm as being on the rebound after federal regulators blocked AT&T's proposed acquisition of the company. While acknowledging that his company is in the second tier of the nationwide carriers, Humm touted several internal initiatives within the company by which it aims to recover from the damage it took over the abortive AT&T acquisition and reemerge as a thriving independent outfit.

"I'm pleased to say T-Mobile is back competing aggressively as a challenger in wireless," Humm said, lauding his organization's efforts at "restarting the company."

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