Sprint is down, but not out, execs say

AT&T's move to buy T-Mobile doesn't keep third-place Sprint from showing off products, plans at CTIA Wireless show

ORLANDO -- Visitors at the International CTIA Wireless conference here this week talked incessantly about the proposed $39 billion AT&T takeover of T-Mobile USA. Analysts and vendors continually laid odds on whether government regulators will approve the deal.

Meanwhile, Sprint -- arguably the biggest wireless player hurt by the deal -- mostly kept to its game plan, showing off a new glasses-free 3D smartphone and pen-input tablet, both developed by HTC.

Sprint and HTC staged an elaborate event Tuesday with 3D movie clips and demonstrations of the new devices for bloggers, who recognize that their readers crave detailed information on the latest cool tools.

Kyocera also showed off an unusual dual-screen, Android-based Echo smartphone that will run on Sprint's network. The device will sell for $199.99 after rebate with a two-year agreement, starting on April 17 (with online reservations starting Saturday, March 26).

This week's show seemed divided between a mostly younger generation of device fanatics who believe that new smartphones and tablets will drive the wireless industry forward and a mostly older generation focused on networks and financial deals. Many of the latter group recalled when the U.S. government stepped in to break up the Bell telecommunications monopoly in the 1980s.

"It's like we're putting the Bells back together again," remarked Berge Ayvazian, a wireless analyst now working as a consultant at Light Reading, who argued that government approval of AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile is no sure thing.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse came out swinging during a keynote panel session on Tuesday, one day after the carrier's stock crashed by more than 13% in reaction to Sunday's AT&T/T-Mobile deal. Hesse contended that the deal would hurt consumers and would consolidate too many wireless subscribers -- and revenue -- in the hands of two players: the combined AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

Sprint would be left a distant third, he noted.

Sprint's Trevor Van Norman, director of consumer product marketing, said in an interview that Sprint will continue to offer innovative new devices -- "certainly a lot more with Android."

Van Norman said Sprint's marketing will continue on a "steady" path, including a push on its "value" message by keeping with its $79-a-month unlimited-data high-end smartphone service plans. The Sprint marketing themes of value, innovation and customer service "are starting to take hold," Van Norman said.

Hesse seemed to hedge on unlimited-data service plans, however, in his panel remarks on Tuesday. When Jim Cramer of CBNC asked Hesse whether Sprint plans to keep its unlimited-data plans, Hesse said, "Maybe, and maybe not," without elaborating.

Kyocera, which seems to have a solid partnership with Sprint and Android, didn't announce plans at CTIA for continuing to work with Sprint specifically on coming devices.

However, John Chier, director of Kyocera corporate communications, said the dual-screen concept in the Echo will appear in future phones and devices from Kyocera. "Echo is our first-generation platform," he said in an interview.

Sprint will also sell the PlayBook 7-in. tablet from Research In Motion, although it isn't clear when a version running on Sprint's CDMA network, or possibly its faster WiMax network, will appear. RIM and Best Buy announced this week that the device will go on sale April 19, starting at $499.

If Sprint is making any important shifts in its marketing and service pricing because of the AT&T takeover deal, analysts agreed that shift probably won't occur until after the currently announced smartphones and tablets go on sale in coming weeks.

For now, Sprint is knocked down and winded in what looks to be a challenging 10-round bout as the AT&T deal trudges through its regulatory review.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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