AT&T impresses with 'Digital Life,' but CTIA keynotes frustrate

Whose profile is rising? AT&T's Digital Life

Perhaps the most interesting carrier news to come out of the CTIA Wireless 2012 show was AT&T's (NYSE:T) announcement that it was jumping into the home monitoring and automation game. And to underscore that news, AT&T took over an opulent house in New Orleans' Garden District  to demonstrate exactly how its Digital Life products and services could improve users' lives.

Click here for a photo tour through AT&T's Digital Life home.

Customers who purchase AT&T's home automation product agree to install a 3G-capable "controller" in their home that can connect to various home appliances and functions (AT&T will use third parties to do the installation). The controller can connect to the Internet through an AT&T 3G network connection or through the homeowners' existing wired broadband Internet connection (supplied by AT&T or another carrier). The controller then communicates with various connected devices throughout the home--door locks, security cameras, coffee makers and the like--through Wi-Fi or Z Wave.

The setup allows users to remotely control various home functions (turning on the air conditioner while they're on their way home, for example) or to monitor their home from afar.

AT&T is currently testing its Digital Life offerings in two markets: Atlanta and Dallas. Moreover, the carrier hasn't said it what it will charge for its Digital Life services. AT&T said it plans to sell its home automation products through its corporate-owned stores and other outlets. The offering will be backed by a dedicated Digital Life call center.

While some analysts questioned whether AT&T would be able to impact a space already staked out by home monitoring companies like ADT, AT&T executives predicted the area could represent a significant opportunity for the carrier.

"When you're a company like AT&T ... you look at opportunities that are billion-dollar opportunities," Glenn Lurie, president of AT&T's Emerging Devices unit, told Reuters. "Obviously to grow our business at any level, when you're a $130 billion plus company, you have to look for significant opportunities. We view this as a significant opportunity."

Indeed, AT&T isn't the only telecom company keen on the intersection of home services and telecom: Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) launched a home security and energy management service last fall. Comcast too offers similar services through its Xfinity Home play.

However, AT&T's Digital Life splash during the CTIA show reflects the carrier's believe that it could be a significant growth area, which could also translate into additional opportunities for other companies in the value chain and likely attending the CTIA show.

Honorable mention: The day before the start of CTIA, T-Mobile USA announced its vendors for its $4 billion LTE network upgrade. The carrier said Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Nokia Siemens Networks will install LTE Release 10-capable equipment at 37,000 cell sites across T-Mobile's HSPA+ network footprint as part of the carrier's effort to increase signal quality and improve network performance this year. The news brings to a head T-Mobile's efforts to catch up with its larger rivals in the race to LTE.

Whose profile is falling? CTIA carrier keynotes

Last year CTIA brought in CNBC "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer for an electrifying keynote--one given added weight by AT&T's announcement the weekend before that it would attempt to acquire T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. This year CTIA brought Cramer back to the keynote spotlight, likely based on the rave reviews of his prior performance.

But those looking for an hour and a half of Cramer asking probing, pointed questions of the CEOs of the nation's four largest carriers were sorely disappointed. Although the kickoff keynote session was billed as a "carrier roundtable" hosted by Cramer, the vast majority of the time was sucked up by individual presentations by Verizon's Dan Mead, Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) Dan Hesse, T-Mobile's Philipp Humm and AT&T's Ralph de la Vega. The individual presentations, despite a few minor items, contained little new or interesting information.

The actual roundtable, anchored by Cramer, finally began a full hour into the keynote. And though Cramer did pose some interesting questions ("Is a friend or an enemy?") the roundtable only lasted around 30 minutes. Moreover, those looking for insights into the CEOs' strategy were left largely empty-handed. (Is Amazon a friend or enemy? The executives uniformly answered "friend" to the question, and provided similarly staid answers to other, similar queries).

While CTIA is to be commended for creating the opportunity for fireworks among the nation's top carriers, the result left most wanting more.

Also, Verizon Wireless--the nation's second largest carrier--maintained a surprisingly low profile considering CTIA is the nation's biggest wireless trade show of the year. Verizon announced a new HTC smartphone, a streaming video deal with Color and new enterprise tools for tablet users. But that's not much compared with previous years.