Data pricing to dominate discussions (unless LightSquared teams with Sprint) - CTIA 2011 Preview

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This year's CTIA Wireless 2011 show could be the scene of a number of notable U.S. carrier announcements according to those watching the space. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA all could make the event the launching point for new pricing plans or services.

But what exactly can attendees expect? The most interesting news at the show actually could come from an upstart: LightSquared. The company's CEO is scheduled to give a keynote address Wednesday, March 23, where he could confirm rumors of a tie-up between Sprint and LightSquared for LTE. Indeed, Sprint is holding an event the afternoon of Tuesday, March 22, that is scheduled to last more than two hours--the company has been rumored to be preparing new tablets and WiMAX smartphones. It's unclear whether Sprint and LightSquared will use CTIA as a starting point for a possible partnership, but if they do it likely would dominate headlines from the event.

Aside from Sprint and LightSquared, most analysts expect data pricing to dominate operator discussions. If CNBC's Jim Cramer manages to take a break from throwing coffee cups and making sound effects, he likely will pose data pricing questions to the CEOs of the nation's top carriers during CTIA's carrier roundtable keynote session Tuesday morning.

"The data plan arena is where we will most likely see the majority of changes," wrote Current Analysis analyst Maidy Whitesell. "Expect to see a wider variety of tiered data plans with a higher number of included gigabytes. The most likely high-end data plan would include 10 GB instead of 5 GB (which is most common today). Verizon Wireless already announced a 10 GB plan for LTE."

Indeed, T-Mobile recently instituted just that change: The carrier officially unveiled a new mobile data plan, its 10 GB webConnect plan, which has no overage charges. At CTIA, T-Mobile also could introduce a portable hotspot, like the Novatel MiFi, for its HSPA+ network.

ABI analyst Mark Beccue said he expects to see discussions at CTIA about "multi-device subscriptions." In a recent blog post, Beccue wrote that Canadian carrier Rogers recently introduced new data sharing plans that enable customers to seamlessly and easily share data from one plan across multiple devices.

"You can bet that nearly every mobile operator in the world will be watching Rogers' initiative closely," Beccue wrote. "And you can make another safe bet that consumers will absolutely snap it up--if they are comfortable in how Rogers explains the accounting."

Of course, there could be a number of other newsworthy tidbits at the show, including:

  • Possible news from mobile payments venture Isis. (Though Current Analysis analyst Deepa Karthikeyan noted that "it might still be a little early to start seeing concrete announcements from carriers regarding the Isis initiative.")
  • Mobile commerce efforts, such as AT&T's recently launched ShopAlerts service, and possibly additional mobile barcode applications.
  • An industry-wide effort headed by the Wi-Fi Alliance for hotspot roaming.
  • Upgraded carrier networks in Orlando, Fla., based on testing firm GWS' promise to "conduct real-time voice and data network performance testing in and around the Orange County Convention Center during CTIA Wireless 2011" for press.

Finally, despite all the noise on mobile data, some expect voice calling to demand attention at CTIA as well.

"Voice plan innovation will likely see other bundling of services and more competitive international long distance dialing, which are becoming table stakes from over the top providers," noted John Tremblay of Mobile Integrity.