What makes him powerful: AT&T Mobility sent the wireless industry reeling in March with the announcement that the company was acquiring T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. If consummated, the deal, which was spearheaded by de la Vega and the rest of the AT&T management team, would combine the No. 2 and No. 4 U.S. wireless carriers and dramatically increase AT&T's subscriber base to more than 129.2 million. It would also significantly broaden AT&T's current and future network footprint and allow the company to deploy LTE to more than 95 percent of the U.S. population.
But the proposed deal is running into several roadblocks. The Department of Justice sued to try to block the acquisition (a trial on that deal is set for Feb. 13). In addition, it has caused an outcry from numerous smaller operators, including Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), which also sued to stop the purchase, claiming it would harm the mobile device marketplace and result in higher prices for consumers.
Originally AT&T hoped to have the deal finalized by the first quarter of 2012, but recently said that it will likely not close until the first half of 2012. If AT&T and de la Vega close this deal, AT&T stands to win big. Not only will it have the necessary spectrum to future-proof its network and escape the impending capacity crunch, it will increase its footprint and bring on a significant amount of new customers. Of course, if the deal falls apart, AT&T has a lot to lose, including the $6 billion breakup fee it will have to pay to T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom.
During this crucial time when all aspects of the acquisition are being scrutinized by regulators, de la Vega has had the challenging task of keeping AT&T Mobility on track and focusing on the future. That normally difficult job became even more critical in early 2011 when AT&T lost its four-year exclusive lock on the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone in the U.S. market and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) announced it would start selling a CDMA version of the iPhone 4.
But AT&T was able to weather the storm. AT&T's iPhone activations remained solid despite Verizon's competitive offering. In fact, in the first half of the year, AT&T sold 7.2 million iPhones (3.6 million both in the first and second quarter). In the third quarter, AT&T saw that number fall to 2.7 million but attributed that to the fact that the iPhone 4S wasn't announced until the fourth quarter. The company is expecting a blockbuster fourth quarter holiday selling season and is already off to a strong start, selling a reported 4 million iPhone 4Ss during the first weekend the device went on sale.
Under de la Vega's direction, AT&T is moving ahead with its LTE launch. In September the company launched LTE in five markets and is on track to launch 15 cities and cover 70 million POPs by year-end. In addition, the operator has surpassed its backhaul target and now uses advanced backhaul to carry more than two-thirds of AT&T's data traffic.
Clearly, de la Vega and the entire AT&T management team are under intense pressure to get the T-Mobile deal finalized. If the deal succeeds, de la Vega will be tasked with merging the two firms, a job that should be somewhat familiar to him. He is credited for overseeing the successful merging of Cingular Wireless with the former AT&T Wireless when the two companies combined in 2004. Through his leadership, the company was able to change all the former AT&T stores into Cingular stores overnight. --Sue