Ina Fried

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CTIA Boss Steve Largent Goes Deep With Mobilized

To wrap up the first week of Mobilized, I had a chat on Friday with CTIA chief Steve Largent about net neutrality, the need for more spectrum and why his member companies spend so much time bashing one another.

Yes, that Steve Largent. For those who have been in a dead zone for the past two decades, the former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver went on to become a congressman and has spent the last seven years heading up the wireless industry’s trade association–a 90-person group with an annual budget of nearly $50 million.

It was a fun talk, though he did deflect some of the more divisive questions, including whether the carriers’ differing definitions of 4G is leading to customer confusion. In general, though, Largent showed the same soft hands he had during all those years on the gridiron.

Largent began by talking about his top priorities (spectrum, spectrum and more spectrum, plus a need for no new wireless taxes) and then I jumped in. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk:

On the need for more spectrum: It really is the lifeblood of the industry. It fuels the virtuous cycle….We’ll work with any interested party to get more spectrum. It really is the most critical element to the service that we provide.

What a lot of people forget about is how long the process takes to get spectrum to the marketplace. The last two spectrum auctions that we had took somewhere between eight and 11 years to come to market. We simply can’t wait that long. The FCC and the president called for 500 MHz in the next 10 years and 300 MHz of that in the next five years. That is a laudible goal. We’re seeing if we can’t even get more spectrum and get it quicker.

That really is priority 1, 2 and 3 for us as a trade association. It has been this year and it will be until we see that spectrum auctioned.

(Largent then went on to talk about the group’s actual No. 2 and No. 3 priorities, which I will summarize. No. 2 is to keep downward pressure on taxes, such as pushing for a five-year ban on new wireless taxes. No. 3 is all the warm-fuzzy stuff like environmental friendliness and those commercials that tell you to hang up and drive.)

Mobilized: Your organization opposes the extension of net neutrality into wireless broadband. Won’t this eventually mean the end of net neutrality as a whole since everything is heading wireless?

Largent: To me, this all goes back to the first point I was making and that’s this spectrum issue. The reason wireless is unique is because of the limited amount of spectrum we have today. To alleviate that, we have to have more spectrum and the more spectrum we have, the more services we have and the necessity of managing our network becomes less severe.

Until we get to that point–and we are not there yet–we have to have the ability to manage our network. If we don’t, you could have 911 calls blocked or people’s calls from their kids in college blocked or emergency alerts blocked and that’s not the system anyone wants to see.

You’ve been at the group since 2003, so you have seen some generation shifts. How would you say the 3G to 4G transition is going, relative to past transitions?

I think it is going very well. I think it is actually going faster. This is a quantum leap, going from 3G to 4G, and it takes an incredible amount of investment. We’ve seen the first of the 4G technologies with Sprint. We see Verizon coming on very quickly this year. AT&T is following closely on their heels. T-Mobile, they have some real spectrum constraints and yet they are coming on very quickly as well.

What do you make of the fact that different companies are using different definitions of 4G. Do you think there is some risk that if your members don’t use that term to mean the same thing that consumers won’t understand the benefits of true 4G?

No. What I would tell you is this is a highly competitive marketplace. What these individual companies do in terms of marketing their plans for 4G and their services and how quickly they are available to customers, that’s a competitive practice and a competitive field. I’m not going to weigh in on that. That’s a place I am not going to go.

Obviously wireless is one of the most competitive areas, with customers looking for new services and devices every couple of years, and a lot of money is spent driving to retain and attract new users. It seems like attacks have gotten sharper in the past few years. Do you think there is more energy going into attacks, or is that just the way the game is played?

There’s a lot of sharp elbows in any competitive industry like ours and that’s not something I am embarrassed about. I’m actually very proud of the fact of how competitive our carriers are with each other. It goes beyond the carriers to handset makers to application providers. There is a lot of competition going on in this space.

The other thing to look at is the amount of money that they are spending to advertise their services. I think three of our four carriers are in the top ten of advertising. It’s very competitive, and those elbows do get sharp.

Since, I’m new to the wireless beat, I asked some of my colleagues to come up with some good, topical questions. Here’s what one came back with: The 1983 playoff win against the Dolphins was one of the most exciting and surprising games ever played. Do you agree?

I can tell you that 1983 was when this trade association came into existence….That game was very exciting–Dan Marino was a rookie that year.

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