Metered billing, AT&T/T-Mobile hot topics during CTIA carrier keynote

ORLANDO, Fla.--Though the specter of AT&T's (NYSE:T) proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA pervaded virtually every comment, the CEOs of the nation's three largest wireless carriers covered everything from metered billing to 4G networks to spectrum challenges during a lively kickoff keynote roundtable here at the CTIA Wireless 2011 show. While there was precious little hard news to report (other than T-Mobile CEO Philipp Humm's absence) the event nonetheless served as a sounding board on hot topics in wireless--and as a venue for a few choice zingers between friendly but clearly competitive executives.

Host Jim Cramer, left, with--from left to right—Verizon’s Dan Mead, Sprint’s Dan Hesse and AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega.CNBC's Jim Cramer--whose booming, staccato questions made his microphone seem somewhat unnecessary--hosted the discussion, and, after a few softball questions, he jumped right into the thick of it: "Why am I subsidizing people who are complete data hogs?" he asked Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) CEO Dan Mead, noting that he's a Verizon Wireless subscriber and is paying the same rate for unlimited mobile data that heavier data users do.

"Well, first of all we appreciate your business," Mead said. He then explained that unlimited service plans "have been very important to foster the growth of smartphones."

"The whole industry is looking at, ‘Should there be caps? Should there be metered billing?'" Mead said, noting that many in the industry are still working to answer those questions. Verizon currently offers unlimited data plans for smartphones, though carrier executives in recent weeks have hinted at a move toward tiered, metered pricing this summer.

Cramer then turned the question to Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) CEO Dan Hesse: "Will you maintain your unlimited pricing plans?"

"Maybe. Maybe not," Hesse answered. "The important thing for us is to differentiate. ... We're monitoring usage very closely and we're maintaining our unlimited position."

(Hesse subsequently scored the biggest zing of the morning after Cramer asked AT&T's Ralph de la Vega why the carrier's wireless network sometimes has trouble handling users' data demands. "You said you have Verizon, didn't you?" Hesse asked, a comment that earned the executive loud applause. "It's difficult to predict demand," replied de la Vega.)

Cramer repeatedly referenced AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile during the session. He asked Sprint's Hesse his position on the transaction.

"I do have concerns that it would stifle innovation and too much power would be in the hands of just two," Hesse replied, a comment that drew applause from those in the audience likely aligned with AT&T and T-Mobile's smaller rivals.

Interestingly, Cramer also questioned Mead whether Verizon had been interested in purchasing T-Mobile.

"We didn't think through that," Mead replied, noting that Verizon is satisfied with its current spectrum holdings. "We didn't think there was a need. ... We're extremely confortable where we're at."

(Sprint's Hesse also managed to ding AT&T's de la Vega after Cramer asked the AT&T chief the reasoning behind AT&T's proposed purchase of T-Mobile. De la Vega noted that the transaction would allow AT&T to bring "4G" to more Americans, to which Hesse replied: "I thought you already had 4G?" The zinger 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.

Cramer ended the session with a series of questions about technology companies including Microsoft, Netflix and Facebook. Are these companies friends or foes?

In general, the wireless executives said the companies are friends and provide valuable services to subscribers, though some appeared receptive to the idea that content providers such as Twitter and Facebook should help pay for the cost of transmitting their services. While no executive made a definitive statement on the idea, the issue is clearly on the radar of executives who are likely dealing with the strains of transmitting data-heavy applications over their networks.

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