Changing of the guard: The new CEOs of wireless now poised to take the gloves off

Mike Dano

LAS VEGAS--It's a new day in the wireless industry. This year's Super Mobility Week is ground zero for a battle among the new guard in the wireless industry.

Three of the nation's top four wireless carriers have relatively new CEOs, and attendees here at this fall show are getting a front-row seat to the opening bouts of what promises to be an interesting confrontation among them.

Of course, the opening jabs of this fight were fired almost two years ago by John Legere, the executive Deutsche Telekom brought in to lead a stand-alone T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) following AT&T's (NYSE: T) failed attempt to acquire the carrier. Then, and after Sprint's (NYSE: S) SoftBank-backed attempt to merge with T-Mobile failed, Sprint chief Masayoshi Son earlier this summer replaced longtime Sprint CEO Dan Hesse with Marcelo Claure, the founder of phone distributor Brightstar and a relative unknown in the industry. And then, just a few weeks after that, AT&T's mobile chief Ralph de la Vega stepped up the carrier's organizational chart to put Glenn Lurie, the previous head of AT&T's emerging device business, into the CEO role for AT&T Mobility. That leaves only Dan Mead, CEO of Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), as the last of the "old guard" among the top executives at the nation's Tier 1 carriers.

With three of the nation's four top carriers now boasting new leadership, the stage is set for a new phase of conflict in the industry. And already we're starting to see the first hints of what's to come. First, Sprint's Claure wasted no time by introducing new shared data plans with double the amount of data provided by rivals. And shortly after he introduced new unlimited data plans for individuals that are $20 per month cheaper than what Sprint previously offered--and from what T-Mobile offers.

And then just this week, Claure showed that he's not going to quietly let Legere suck all the air out of the room: Just hours after T-Mobile announced a guarantee for device trade-ins, Sprint issued its own guarantee in a release titled "Sprint Strikes Back with Improved Phone Trade-in Program." Importantly, Sprint called out T-Mobile by name in its release--a move that likely wouldn't have happened under the direction of the industry's old guard.

Although AT&T's Lurie has so far stayed relatively quiet, I'm guessing that won't last long. I've met Lurie several times and he is an oversize personality who seems unafraid to address conflict head-on. While he probably won't make liberal use of swear words like Legere, I don't think he's going to leave Legere's jabs unanswered.

It's no surprise that the rhetoric in the wireless industry is ratcheting up--the industry is entering a new phase. LTE buildouts are largely complete, smartphone penetration rates are leveling off, and carriers are now beginning to look to new business opportunities like home automation and TV broadcasting to shore up revenues. These new challenges--along with the increasing likelihood of wireless price wars--appear to require new leadership. And that's exactly what we've got at AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

So what of Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier? So far there's no hint that Mead is going anywhere. And Verizon does continue to report relatively solid quarterly numbers. But is Mead the leader that should address the changes and threats now posed new faces like Legere, Claure and Lurie? That remains to be seen.

At the SMW keynote this morning, Mead hosted a relatively quiet roundtable to discuss mobile video. It was the kind of event that veteran CTIA attendees are used to--it stayed relatively friendly and did not address Verizon's competition. Tomorrow, T-Mobile is scheduled to make its "uncarrier 7.0" announcement, where Legere will undoubtedly take direct aim at his carrier's rivals and, more importantly, will attempt to point out what they're doing wrong. It's clear that, to some degree, consumers have responded to this approach, and it's not an approach that I think Mead will take.

Again, Mead and Verizon have so far managed to navigate through the industry's recent upheavals. It remains to be seen whether that will continue. --Mike | @mikeddano