4. Ralph de la Vega, President and CEO, AT&T Mobility - Most Powerful People in Wireless


 Ralph de la Vega, President and CEO, AT&T MobilityWhat makes him powerful: After facing enormous opposition to its planned $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA, AT&T (NYSE:T) in late 2011 decided to stop pursuing the deal and look for other spectrum opportunities that would not raise as many red flags with regulators and competitors. For AT&T Mobility President and CEO Ralph de la Vega, that meant that in 2012 he had the additional challenge of keeping the company's wireless business on track despite this disappointing development. 

The consummate professional, de la Vega handled the challenge well, keeping AT&T's growth on track while also securing more spectrum for future growth. In addition, his team spent much of the year innovating with new products, like its Digital Life home automation service that has yet to launch. At various trade shows and conferences throughout the year, AT&T provided the industry with a glimpse of what types of Digital Life services are possible thanks to a combination wireless connectivity and wireless sensors deployed throughout the home.

AT&T did manage to secure more spectrum this year. In mid-October the company received FCC approval to deploy LTE in 20 MHz of WCS spectrum that it purchased from NextWave Wireless, Comcast and Horizon Wi-Com. With the additional spectrum, AT&T will be able to deploy LTE in 20 MHz spectrum as well as make an additional 10 MHz of spectrum available for fixed broadband with the possibility of mobile broadband use.

The company also continues to see success with the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, selling more iPhones than any other U.S. operator during  the third quarter--AT&T sold 4.7 million iPhones in third quarter. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) sold 3.1 million iPhones in the third quarter.

AT&T also successfully launched Mobile Share shared data plans in late August. The plans, as of third quarter, have already attracted about 2 million customers. That number is notable, considering competitor Verizon Wireless instigated a backlash from customers when it launched its Share Everything shared data plans this summer. The difference between AT&T's plans and Verizon's plans is that AT&T will not require new customers or those who purchase subsidized phones via upgrades to sign up for the new plans.

Both operators hope that the shared data plans will provide incentive for customers to connect more devices to the network. AT&T has been leading the connected devices space, growing the business to more than $1 billion in revenue. 

But AT&T does face some challenges in the months ahead as competitors such as T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) race to make inroads in LTE. AT&T plans to have 150 million POPs covered with LTE by year-end and to cover 80 percent of the U.S. population (or 252 million POPs) by the end of 2013. Sprint plans to have 250 million POPs covered by the end of 2013 and T-Mobile plans to have 200 million POPs covered.

De la Vega's ability to keep the wireless division on track despite a failed high-profile acquisition is notable. But his aptitude for inspiring his team to be innovative in rate plans and new products is what really makes him stand out.--Sue

Special Report: Top 25 Most Powerful People in U.S. Wireless 2012