AT&T chief: Wireless delivered, despite bust

The wireless industry has come a long way in the past three years even though some futuristic predictions of the boom years have not become reality, John Zeglis, chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T Wireless Services Inc., said Tuesday.

In his second Comdex keynote, Zeglis admitted that the scenarios enabled by wireless services that he presented in his first speech at the Las Vegas trade show three years ago were over the top. For example, in 2000 Zeglis talked about a world in which chairs, clothes and air fresheners combine with wireless networks to "deliver a total sensory experience."

"The line between audacious vision and over-the-top hype can be fairly thin and easy to cross," he said Tuesday. What has come true is that user numbers have grown significantly and available bandwidth for data services has increased.

Plenty of work remains to be done, according to Zeglis. He called upon other operators to cooperate more on interoperability and standards and said the U.S. government should free up more radio spectrum for wireless carriers, two calls to action that Zeglis also made in 2000.

Looking a bit into the future, Zeglis repeated what many wireless carriers and mobile phone makers have already said. "Wireless is going to displace wired big time," he said.

Already five percent of wireless users say they don't have a wired line, according to Zeglis. To increase that, AT&T Wireless is hatching a plan to make landlines redundant, but not the phones already on the kitchen wall, on the desk or installed in the basement. When the customer is at home, all calls to the cell phone could be forwarded to a base station device via Bluetooth. That base station would be plugged in to a regular phone jack and would forward the calls to wired phones around the house, Zeglis said.

Also, this setup would allow users to dial out from those regular phones, but using the mobile phone network instead of a landline carrier, he said. Furthermore, with distinctive ringing tones, multiple cell phones could be associated with one base station.

Before taking the stage for the keynote, Zeglis appeared at a news conference announcing AT&T Wireless' new EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution) service, which the company says allows users to transfer data with average speeds of between 100K bps (bits per second) and 130K bps.

AT&T Wireless is committed to delivering faster data transfer speeds over its network, but it will take time. "We are firmly committed to the full 3G path," Zeglis said. But with today's financial realities, the network won't be upgraded until the operator has made money on its last upgrade and has a solid business plan for the next step up, he said.

AT&T has committed to delivering full 3G support in four main U.S. cities by the end of next year. That means upgrading its network to WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) technology, also known as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System.)

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