Carriers: LightSquared up; Sprint, Clearwire down - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard

Whose profile is rising? LightSquared

As expected, LightSquared pulled off a big showing at CTIA Wireless 2011 this year. Though the company has been dogged by questions surrounding its funding sources and its possible interference with GPS signals, LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja took to the CTIA keynote stage last week to declare that the company will surpass its buildout goals.

LightSquared is committed to cover 100 million POPs by the end of 2012, 145 million by the end of 2013 and 260 million by the end of 2015. "We are not only committed to meeting these milestones, we are today positioned to exceed them," Ahuja said. He also said the company will spend $14 billion on deploying and operating its network over the next eight years. Nokia Siemens Networks is LightSquared's network vendor.

Perhaps more importantly, LightSquared announced two major customer wins: An LTE roaming agreement with Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) and a wholesale agreement with Best Buy. Leap and Best Buy join Open Range Communications as LightSquared partners. Though it remains unclear whether Best Buy, Leap and Open Range carry the anchor-tenant weight that will sustain LightSquared through the long haul, the announcements do seem to provide LightSquared with the breathing room it needs to expand its LTE plans.

Many see LightSquared as a significant threat to mobile WiMAX company Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), which also offers its next-generation network on a wholesale basis. Indeed, Best Buy also is a Clearwire customer, though a Best Buy representative confirmed that Best Buy remains committed to launching Clearwire's service sometime this year.

So how does Clearwire view LightSquared's progress? "We have a network. And we have a network today," said Clearwire's new CFO Hope Cochran. "We also have a tremendous amount of spectrum behind that network. So the capacity that we can handle on that network is tremendous."

Nonetheless, LightSquared needed to have a major CTIA showing to quiet immediate concerns about the company, and its announcements with Leap and Best Buy--as well as its launch commitments--were just enough to push the company onto the upswing at the trade conference.

Whose profile is falling? Sprint and Clearwire

Sprint Nextel was poised (NYSE:S) to have a major showing at CTIA Wireless 2011. Indeed, based on the company's relatively lackluster presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and CEO Dan Hesse's role as CTIA chairman this year, Sprint likely hoped to dominate the U.S. wireless industry's main 2011 trade show.

But then something funny happened on the way to Orlando: AT&T (NYSE:T) announced Sunday afternoon a blockbuster proposal to acquire T-Mobile USA for a whopping $39 billion. The news put Hesse and company on the defensive, and despite Sprint's plethora of news announcements--support for Google Voice, a WiMAX-capable Nexus S and HTC's Evo 3D and View 4G--the nation's third largest wireless carrier wasn't able to rise above the noise of the acquisition.

"I do have concerns that it would stifle innovation and too much power would be in the hands of just two," Hesse said during a keynote appearance; he subsequently confirmed to Bloomberg that Sprint would petition Congress to block AT&T's purchase of T-Mobile.

Of course, Sprint's presence was significant, and the carrier's news announcements were notable. Perhaps most notable was Sprint's partnership with Google for the search giant's Google Voice call-management service. Current Analysis analyst Maidy Whitesell wrote that the "inclusion of Google Voice also adds a positive differentiation for Sprint, as it can continue advertising its innovation and value message."

However, Sprint's move to support Google Voice is a first in the wireless world and is remarkable because it cedes to Google the call-management functions that were once the sole domain of operators. Through the deal, Google will further strengthen its grip on the customer experience through the combination of its Android smartphone operating system and its Google Voice call management service. And that pushes Sprint further into the background.

Nonetheless, Sprint's Hesse did manage to come out swinging during a CTIA carrier roundtable keynote event hosted by CNBC's Jim Cramer. Cramer asked AT&T chief Ralph de la Vega the reasoning behind AT&T's proposed purchase of T-Mobile, and de la Vega noted that the transaction would allow AT&T to bring "4G" to more Americans. "I thought you already had 4G?" Hesse replied, a zinger that drew applause and scattered groans from the audience. (AT&T earlier this year rebranded its existing HSPA+ network as a 4G service, following T-Mobile's lead. Sprint brands Clearwire's mobile WiMAX network as a 4G service.)

Carriers: LightSquared up; Sprint, Clearwire down - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard