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The Specter of Spectrum at CTIA

Reporter's Notebook: The CTIA Wireless 2006 conference has been over since the last exhibitor packed up and moved out of the Las Vegas Convention Center Friday.

With a few days to reflect on the value of the show, let me review some of the key highlights.

Disney Mobile, a mobile virtual operator network (MVNO) service, launched, joining Mobile ESPN and Amp'd Mobile in the latest craze in targeted wireless services.

Disney Mobile is cool if you're a parent who loves to control the communications patterns of your kids. It's potentially dreadful for myriad reasons if you're a tween or teen who enjoys a little more freedom.

PayPal Mobile launched. I got to watch and listen to PayPal President Jeff Jordan order a DVD through his cell phone and pay for it using PayPal.

Pretty cool. I see value in this service. It's another way to keep me from going into a store to wait in line to buy something. But I'm not antisocial: just impatient and maybe a little lazy.

But what I missed was the hard-hitting questions for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin during the keynote session, where he was introduced by Sprint Nextel COO Len Lauer and CTIA CEO Steve Largent.

Today, the FCC will meet to decide if it will change the rules to make it harder for major carriers to get discounts and learn who is bidding on licenses.

The changes precede the U.S. Advanced Wireless Services auction, in which the government is expected to take as much of the 90 megahertz of wireless spectrum it is auctioning off in June. This spectrum, worth billions of dollars to businesses, can enable Voice over IP and other high-speed Internet services.

The FCC is expected to approve a proposal making wireless companies bid anonymously for the 110 licenses in the auction, possibly leaving it so that only the amounts of the bids would be disclosed during the auction.

Wireless companies are complaining about the potential change, which could lead to confusion, higher license costs and legal issues.

These changes are being pushed by FCC chief economist Leslie Marx and Martin who, according to the Wall Street Journal, have concluded that a blind auction would help prevent wireless companies from cooperating with one another to win licenses less expensively or punish other carriers that bid against them.

If anyone was looking for wireless big-wigs to challenge Martin at CTIA, they were disappointed.

But there were definitely hints for regulatory leniency dropped by Lauer and Largent who formally kicked off the show Wednesday.

The hints came with some doses of coddling and ego-massaging, as both men applauded the government's hands-off approach and the decision-making prowess of Martin.

"I'm hoping that when we gather here five years from today that we can say the government continued to play a very supportive role as they have in the past by not trying to be a heavy-handed regulator, letting innovation flourish, letting competition determine the service levels and determine the price in the marketplace so we can have as much success in five years," Lauer said.

Lauer went on to commend the FCC for keeping a "light touch" with regard to corralling wireless spectrum.

This is something that Sprint Nextel, Cingular Wireless and other carriers no doubt pray for as they seek to make millions from their services. Without spectrum, their wireless businesses are toast.

Lauer acknowledged that there is a role for government in the wireless space: making sure "the field is robustly competitive and fair."

He urged the government to support wireless and keep a "light touch." He mentioned the "light touch" a total of three times in case anyone missed it.

You can bet the point, driven home several times, wasn't lost on Martin.

And just in case it was, Largent introduced Martin as a "gentleman with enormous influence on the industry, possibly more than anyone person in America, over what the future of wireless communications will look like in years to come."

Largent proceeded with a number of softball questions about wireless technologies, from how it affects Homeland Security to how useful it was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

He did address the spectrum issue, asking Martin about the importance of 700 megahertz spectrum and the June auction.

Martin answered cordially enough. But he seemed to place more importance on the former than the latter.

"AWS auction is an important auction, but the 700 megahertz option is important not only because of the significant amount of spectrum that's going to be available but also because of the technological characteristics of it... it's very rich in its ability to carry data at relatively low power and still be able to penetrate walls easily."

But was that what the CTIA attendees wanted to hear?

I'd have preferred some fireworks, but provoking the powers that be in the wireless sector may not be the most judicious route. It could make the bidding a nightmare for Sprint Nextel, Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless, etc.

But it sure would have made CTIA a little more fun.