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Ralph de la Vega Opens Up

Kim Hart

Today I had the chance to sit down with Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T's wireless division. He didn't have a lot of time to chat, but he shared with me some of the big issues the company will be tackling this year.

The debate about "open" wireless networks is high on his list, especially with the federal auction of wireless spectrum starting in less than two weeks. The Federal Communications Commission is requiring that a large chunk of those airwaves be used to build a network that will be open to any mobile device or application.

Google also came out with its Android platform, which is meant to be an open operating system that will let consumers access any program they choose on their mobile phone. Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile have joined the Open Handset Alliance spearheaded by Google. A few weeks later, Verizon Wireless said it would allow its customers to use any pre-approved phone on its network. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has repeatedly cited these examples as proof that consumers ultimately want more choice over how they use their phones.

But de la Vega says all the talk about openness is nothing but hype. AT&T, he said, has always given its customers that kind of choice. He pulled out his BlackBerry and showed me the dozen or so icons on the screen, letting him go to Ebay, Gmail, the Weather Channel, Google Maps, and so on.

"We've been doing this for some time now," he said. "But all of the sudden people are talking about openness as if it's new."

He also said that the level of openness customers can enjoy will largely depend on their phones. Not all phones will be technologically capable of using the kind of operating system Google is planning.

Finding ways to merge traditional phone and TV services with mobile phones is also a big push AT&T is making this year. Washington residents don't have access to AT&T's landline and new U-Verse TV services. But in areas that do, customers can control their DVR with their mobile phones and turn their home into a virtual Wi-Fi hotspot, de la Vega said.

He said the AT&T will have some exciting news soon, but couldn't give me any details.

Then he had to run to the FCC for a meeting with Martin before flying back to San Antonio.

By Kim Hart  |  January 15, 2008; 6:52 PM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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