Sprint CEO knocks AT&T deal at CTIA Wireless show

Dan Hesse says if approved by feds, T-Mobile USA purchase would hurt competition

Well, this must have been pretty awkward.

At the CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando, Fla., Sprint Nextel chief executive Dan Hesse participated in a roundtable discussion on Tuesday with AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega, only two days after AT&T announced its $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom.

(Also see: Consumer Reports: AT&T still worst wireless carrier)

But de la Vega's presence with him on stage did little to curb Hesse's candor about his feelings regarding the deal which, if approved, would leave Sprint in a distant third place in the U.S. wireless market behind AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

"I do have concerns that it would stifle innovation and too much power would be in the hands of two," Mr. Hesse said. His comments elicited applause from the crowd.

Though maybe not so much from the group of AT&T executives lining the front of the stage.

For his part, de la Vega argued that the merger, if approved, would benefit consumers (because less competition always does!) and improve coverage.

The AT&T deal came as a shock for two reasons: 1) It was a well-kept secret until Sunday's announcement, and 2) many industry observers were expecting a merger between No. 3 Sprint and No. 4 T-Mobile.

Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead, also part of the roundtable discussion, said he "didn't look at buying T-Mobile USA and isn't interested in buying Sprint." That may well be true, and Mead undoubtedly is rooting for federal regulators to shoot down the acquisition, which would vault AT&T past Verizon as the top U.S. wireless carrier by a healthy margin (more than 125 million subscribers to 93 million; Sprint has 50 million).

However, should the feds OK the deal -- and AT&T has a lot of lobbying power on the ground in Washington to help make that happen -- Mead might be willing to reconsider his disinterest in Verizon acquiring Sprint. Which, as we all know, would be even greater for consumers!

The CTIA roundtable, scheduled months ago, also was supposed to feature T-Mobile USA chief executive Philipp Humm. But after the deal was announced, he withdrew. However, Humm later was seen fetching bottles of water for de la Vega and selling AT&T swag in the conference hallways.

OK, I made up that last part. He was giving away swag.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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