CTIA IT 2009 Scorecard: Wireless carriers

Whose profile is rising? Verizon Wireless. Verizon, known for its savvy public-relations plays, out-witted its competitors by announcing its ground-breaking partnership with Google on the day prior to the start of the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment show. The agreement between Verizon and Google calls for Verizon to not only offer devices with Google's Android platform but also deliver such controversial applications as Google Voice to its subscribers.

Google's Eric Schmidt,  left, and Verizon Wireless' Lowell McAdam announce the  companies' partnership.This strategy not only drew press coverage the day prior to CTIA, but it also was a hot topic the entire week. Everyone who attended CTIA arrived in San Diego ready to debate the implications of the Verizon/Google news.

Of course, the Verizon/Google pact was particularly notable considering the two firms have often clashed over various business- and policy-related issues. And Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt's effusive praise of Verizon's network (he called it the "best in the U.S., by far") surely irked other wireless carriers, most notably T-Mobile USA, which was the first carrier to launch a Google Android device.

But Schmidt also pumped up Verizon for its "open" agenda. "We did not know, until we got to know them, that they would take the leadership on openness. Verizon's leadership has embraced a different philosophy," he said.

That praise for Verizon comes at a very critical time--just weeks after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the FCC plans to impose net neutrality guidelines and open Internet regulations against wireless and wireline networks. Verizon Wireless has voiced concerns about this action. And even though Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam said Verizon's deal with Google was not a reaction to the FCC's net neutrality push, the timing of the news was certainly beneficial to Verizon.

Whose profile is falling? AT&T. AT&T's timing was perfect but the carrier's message fell a bit flat. AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega took the stage immediately following FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's keynote address on Tuesday at the show. Yet de la Vega's address, which was intended to demonstrate how competitive the U.S. wireless industry is, came off as a defensive effort.

att ralph de la vega ctiaUnderstandably, de la Vega was particularly impassioned when he talked about the wireless carriers' recent spectrum purchases, and the impact potential net neutrality rules may have on those investments. He noted that in 2006 wireless carriers spent $14 billion in AWS spectrum and in 2008 they spent $19 billion for 700 MHz spectrum. And everyone knows that AT&T has a lot to lose if the commission imposes net neutrality rules on wireless carriers. During the 700 MHz spectrum auction, the carrier paid extra for spectrum that did not carry open-access stipulations. If the FCC imposes net neutrality regulations, the move would essentially negate the premium AT&T paid by retroactively placing similar open-access stipulations on AT&T's network.

But de le Vega wasn't the only AT&T executive whose message was muddled. AT&T CTO John Donovan came off a bit angry when, during the second day keynote address, he defended AT&T's network against a growing number of critics who have been challenging AT&T's network capacity constraints and potentially laggard upgrade plans.

"I'm well aware of the press coverage," Donovan said, apparently referencing the large and growing number of news articles highlighting customer complaints (primarily iPhone users) about AT&T's network. AT&T Mobility is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone. Said Donovan: "I don't plan our networks based on blogs."

"AT&T understands the wireless data customer better than any other," Donovan said, adding that the carrier is "working incredibly hard to make [the customer experience] a great one." But instead of telling the audience AT&T has its network issues under control, Donovan talked about the company's migration to LTE, which isn't until 2011.

Instead of "wowing" the audience, AT&T's two keynote addresses at CTIA IT did the opposite. De la Vega and Donovan were on the defensive. And that's not a good place to be.

CTIA IT 2009 Scorecard: Wireless carriers