ATandT, T-Mobile Deal Dominates Day 1 at CTIA 2011

CTIA 2011 kicked off with a multi-CEO keynote, but news of AT&T's plans to acquire T-Mobile is overshadowing the mobility conference's first day.

ORLANDO, Fla.-AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of rival T-Mobile was the dominant issue during the opening keynotes at CTIA 2011, despite the best efforts of some speakers to keep the conversation focused on mobility's burgeoning growth, driven by consumer and business interest in both smartphones and tablets.

AT&T officials stunned the tech world when they announced the deal March 20, just 48 hours before the wireless industry's largest show of the year. Two days later, much of the early attendee buzz focused on the AT&T-T-Mobile news, a deal that, if approved, will drastically affect the plans of many companies gathered here to show off their latest devices. It seemed to be the topic of conversation in the Orlando airport, hotel bars and even an attendee-loaded bus headed for the Orange County Convention Center.

The CEOs and other leaders headlining the opening keynote March 22 took pains to avoid the proverbial elephant in the room. For the first hour, talk centered on mobility's growth and its supposedly beneficial effect on the U.S. economy as a whole.

"The proposed transaction that was just announced," Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told the audience, "I'm not going to comment on that."

The audience laughed. The FCC is one of the regulatory bodies that will have to review the proposed AT&T deal.

"Unleashing more spectrum must be a national priority," Genachowski said, suggesting that wireless helps power innovation. "If we don't innovate in the private sector and government, we risk letting big opportunities pass us by."

In the meantime, he added, the spectrum-squeeze issue facing the United States is critical.

American consumers "know what it means to have a dropped call or a slow connection or cranky WiFi," he said. But "while American ingenuity and our appetite for wireless is infinite, spectrum is not." The FCC's agenda, in that light, includes not only creating a transparent marketplace, but also removing obstacles to 4G deployment.

Genachowski's speech echoed one a few minutes earlier by Sprint CEO Dan Hesse.

"Mobile devices have become a lifeline," Hesse told the audience, referring to the use of smartphones by survivors of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. He also cited the use of phones by protesters in the Middle East and North Africa as an example of how mobility is drastically affecting current events.

Like the FCC chairman, Hesse also called out the need for more spectrum for wireless devices, referring to it as the air "that gives our industry life and growth." The United States, he said, "must lead the way in wireless-broadband capacity."

Everything from cars to health-care applications, he predicted, would eventually benefit from tighter integration with wireless technology.