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Steve Largent, President and CEO, CTIA

Steve Largent Former Republican congressman and NFL Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent took over as president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the primary trade association of the cellular industry, in November 2003. Since then, he has maintained a high profile preaching the CTIA gospel of wireless convergence.

While in Congress, Largent served on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee and was considered a leading candidate to replace Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House when Gingrich resigned in 1998. He resigned from Congress in 2002 to make an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Oklahoma. His voting record reflects the Republican position on technology: lower taxes and less regulation.

Prior to entering politics, Largent played 14 years as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. He set six career records and participated in seven Pro Bowls. In 1995, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Largent recently sat down with internetnews.com at the Washington headquarters of CTIA to discuss wireless convergence with the Internet, 3G , Wi-Fi and cell phone usage on airplanes.

Q: The rollout of Voice over IP and Wi-Fi may permit wired and cable operators to compete with cellular companies. At the same time, wireless companies may use Wi-Fi to provide greater capacity by deploying it as an adjunct to their networks. What do you see happening?

I don't think we necessarily have a dog in that fight. The one component that makes us unique that nobody else has is the mobility feature, and nobody can replicate that right now. In a way, we're sort of playing in a park that nobody else can get into.

Ultimately, this is going to become a battle for access to your home and office plus mobility. It's about who can provide the biggest and least expensive and fastest pipe to your home and office and offer you a mobility feature. The pipe will deliver voice, video and broadband.

Q: How does the Internet fit into CTIA's plans?

That's one of the very exciting aspects of wireless. As we move into 3G, I think what you're going so see is having all the capabilities you have on your laptop in the palm of your hand in your mobile device. There are endless possibilities when you start thinking about your mobile device. I think we'll quit calling it a phone since it'll have so many more functions to it.

When you start thinking about taking pictures, sending an e-mail, receiving an e-mail, speaking into your phone and have it transcript voice into text and then sent as an e-mail the range of possibilities is mind boggling and very exciting.

Q: We've heard about 3G for years. Is it really finally here?

The thing to watch is the companies that are acquiring more spectrum, because you cannot get to 3G without significant swaths of spectrum. What you see happening right now with some of the consolidation -- Cingular-AT&T, Sprint-Nextel, Western-Alltel -- is all about more spectrum and capital formation that give you the scale, scope and resources to invest in that 3G world.

These companies see that coming and they know that at their current size they're not going to be big enough to have the necessary capital, and they don't have enough spectrum to get to the third generation. That's why you see a lot of the happenings you see in our industry right now.

Q: Is the United States behind the world in deploying 3G services?

I think it is analogous to we're not necessarily the ski boat, we're the skier. There are countries like Japan and Korea and others who are the ski boat at this point, but we're getting pulled right behind them. We're learning from their mistakes. We're capitalizing on that learning process, and I think in reality we're probably saving a lot of money by letting them make the mistakes before we do.

It's really a difference in the way various markets have evolved. If you look at countries like Japan and Korea, they have had a government that has been very compliant with allowing them to have access to a lot of spectrum, and in some cases even having the government be a willing partner and investor in providing the resources.

Q: Having television broadcasters vacate their current spectrum will create tremendous opportunities for your members. Do you think the broadcasters will really hit that 2006 target date to vacate the spectrum?

They'll be moved, and my guess is it'll be sooner rather than later. It depends on how aggressive they [Congress] are this year. A lot of people predict that if they do open up the Telecom Act, that it would be a two or three year process, because sometimes Congress likes to milk an issue.

The wild card in this is having Sen. [Ted] Stevens as the Commerce Committee chairman. He is an appropriator at heart and appropriators always work on a 12-month cycle. He may take that same sort of approach on a telecom rewrite. He may say, "We want to do this in an non-election year and that's 2005. Here's the schedule, boys." It's hard to predict.

I think there are several issues that are driving this whole telecom rewrite: one of them is VoIP and the other is this 700MGz digital transition. Those are two issues that are a large part of why there is some impetus to move Congress into reworking the Telecom Act.

Q: How difficult a sale will it be to get people to accept using cell phones on airplanes?

I think the sale will be easier than getting the technology right. You can imagine the technological hurdles you have to get over in order to make that happen: shooting radio frequency from the top of an airplane and bounce it off a satellite and bounce it back down to earth and get it to somebody while you're at 30,000 feet above the ground moving at 600 mph.

I'm totally convinced we can get the technology to make that happen. At that point, I think it's going to be a function of consumer demand. From what I've read and the surveys that I've been exposed to, most people are very interested in having access to wireless data while they are on a plane. But there's a lot more consternation about sitting on an airplane for three, four or five hours listening to somebody else's phone conversation.

People are very protective of their cell phones, how it's used, where it's used and how much it costs. It has become a very personal issue for a whole lot of people in this country.

As a trade association, we're not in the business of shaping consumer Demand. We respond to it. So, we'll respond to demand whether that's the airline industry or individual consumers. Our goal is to say if there is a demand for this type of technology -- and we believe there is -- then we're going to do everything we can to provide it. How that's deployed, how that's used by the airlines, that's up to them.

Q: Given the past problems in the cell phone industry with slamming, contracts and billing, did it surprise you when some members of Congress questioned the industry's commitment to privacy when it proposed a national 411 directory?

Yes. When you look at whatever range of issues you want to talk about where consumers have been harmed, I think there is a proper role for the government to step in. My question to the Commerce Committee or the Congress or to the FCC or to anybody else is, where is the harm in the wireless industry?

All the things that I see are only benefits to the customers. We've got vibrant competition, we've been lightly regulated and we continue to offer more services and more minutes of use for a lower price. I don't see the harm. It's kind of like, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I would say clearly the wireless industry has produced more positive results and benefits for consumers than just about any other industry going. My understanding is that a number of companies are continuing to move forward [on the 411 directory].

Originally, there was a first quarter 2005 goal. Because of the lot of the misperceptions and misinformation about the 411 service, the carriers have a less aggressive time frame now. I think there will be some carriers launching in 2005.