RealTime IT News

Q&A: CTIA CEO Steve Largent

CTIA CEO Steve Largent
CTIA CEO Steve Largent
Photo: CTIA
In some ways, this seems a golden age for the wireless industry.

The smartphone revolution has made mobile computing a reality, a necessity, for many. The devices are now less a status symbol than a way of life. For a growing number of users, the smartphone is coming to rival the PC as their primary computing device, with the landline a fading memory.

But as wireless networks increasingly become the on-ramp to the Internet, the industry has come under growing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers. Open Internet advocates have become sharp critics of restrictions on the applications users can access on wireless networks.

VoIP provider Skype has a petition pending with the Federal Communications Commission that would require wireless providers to open their networks to new applications.

[cob:Pull_Quote]Others, including many smaller wireless providers, have protested the practice of the big carriers locking up chic new devices like the iPhone in exclusive agreements with the handset makers.

Lawmakers have held hearings. The Justice Department has gotten involved. Under new leadership, FCC has signaled its intention to take a close look at the industry, most recently issuing notices of inquiry (NOI) soliciting comment on how it should act to spur competition, innovation and investment in the sector.

InternetNews.com recently sat down with Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, the trade association representing the wireless industry, at his Washington office.

In the interview that follows, Largent, a former congressman and a NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who shattered every major receiving record in his 13-year career with the Seattle Seahawks, discusses his views on the industry he represents.

After the first meeting of the newly reconstituted FCC, we saw those NOIs looking into competition, innovation and investment. As the commission gathers information and looks toward policy decisions, what steps would you most like to see it take that will benefit the industry you represent and the consumers it serves?

First of all, I would say about the NOIs, we look at is as an opportunity to tell our story to the full FCC as it's been reconstituted with three new members. So we're looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity.

But the thing that we're going to press the FCC on the most vigorously over the long term is this issue of finding additional spectrum for the wireless industry. We feel like in the long term that is the most important and salient issue of this industry, ensuring that we have a path forward to find additional spectrum as we offer more and more services at higher speeds to more customers. We're going to need additional spectrum.

I think that the last spectrum that became available and was auctioned in the last three years took somewhere between eight and 11 years to come to fruition, to come to the point where we were able to purchase it at auction. We can't afford to wait that long for the next available spectrum.

England, Germany and Japan all have somewhere between 300 and 360 additional megahertz of spectrum they're going to make available to their wireless industries in their countries, and we need to see the same sort of effort in this country, because we're just going to be constrained.

Nobody does as good a job as the wireless industry of utilizing this limited resource as well as we do. But even given that, with the demand for additional services, and the number of people carrying handsets, we're going to need more spectrum.

When you look to the FCC and Congress where many members and officials have expressed some concerns about various issues in the wireless sector, what policy proposals -- either on the table or in the offing -- scare you the most?

That's a good question. I would guess Net neutrality, and the conversation about proposing legislation to impose a Net neutrality rule on the wireless industry would be the most threatening to the core of our industry.

Because wireless is different from so many other industries, from cable, from even wireline, in that our industry relies on the ability to manage its network to allow the calls and services to go through. And if we're not allowed to manage the network -- and Net neutrality at its basic core is about, 'You don't manage it, you just supply it' -- it could bring down our network.

We don't see that that's in the best interest of anybody in this country, whether it's our public safety or individuals with phones to allow a few users -- the so-called 'bandwidth hogs' -- to dominate this industry and take over a network. We don't think that serves the public good.

Do you envision in the next big spectrum auction the same fight over open access that played out with the C Block in 700 MHz?

My hope is that the government learned its lesson from the C Block experiment. The fact is that they can auction the spectrum but they're going to get a lot less money for it when they put all these different constraints on the spectrum.

[cob:Special_Report]If they're just willing to open up the auction to have any bidders and all bidders bid on it to use the spectrum for CMRS that that's the best and most fruitful way to conduct an auction.

So you oppose conditions?

Yeah, when they impose conditions, they're going to get less money. And I don't think that's the goal of spectrum auction, it shouldn't be. I don't think that's what the government wants, particularly this government, with the financial constraint that it's under.

You're not an advocate for the Treasury Department, you're an advocate for the wireless companies. Think back to your convention in April of last year, when [then-FCC Chairman] Kevin Martin gave a speech that was met with applause when he announced his intention to oppose Skype's petition.

The argument that you make about the auction raising more money for the Treasury is certainly one that people in the government might be receptive to, but why is it that the members of the industry you represent are so opposed to conditions like those that Skype is trying to impose?

It depends on what your goal in having an auction is for. If your goal is to raise the maximum amount of money, then you need to have the rules be the least invasive. And I think that is what the goal of having a spectrum auction should be -- give the spectrum to people that want it and need it, and let them put it to work and make it available to customers.

I don't think having the government prescribe what it should look like, what you should offer, what you can't offer, what rules you have to be under -- I just don't think that's a good way to develop a highly competitive industry.

Page 2: Skype, "the oligopoly" and the Super Bowl