AT&T, Sprint execs trade insults over T-Mobile merger

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) - Technology advances quickly in the wireless industry, but animosity can fester.

Chief executives for AT&T Mobility and Sprint Nextel, speaking at the CTIA wireless-industry trade show on Tuesday, took potshots at each other in their respective keynote speeches.

Sprint has come out as the most vocal opponent of AT&T's proposal to acquire T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom. After the U.S. government sued to block the merger, Sprint, the third-largest U.S. carrier by subscribers, also filed a federal lawsuit last month, calling it anti-competitive and harmful to consumers.

AT&T continues to promote the proposed transaction as one that will create jobs and improve cellular service for customers.

Sprint's Dan Hesse, who was the first cell-carrier CEO to take the stage here Tuesday, opened his keynote by comparing Ralph de la Vega, the chief of AT&T's wireless unit, to John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Hesse joked that comparing his competitor to a murderer was a compliment because Wilkes Booth was an attractive actor.

De la Vega quipped in his introduction that it's ironic to be compared to an actor "from the guy who is the best actor we have in wireless today," suggesting that Hesse, a frequent stage speaker, lacks substance.

AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile was announced a day before another major wireless-industry conference in March. When people asked Hesse how that Orlando event went, he said it felt a bit like being asked, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

At that conference, Hesse and de la Vega were cordial in public. They appeared together onstage, along with Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead, for a session moderated by CNBC's Jim Cramer. When Cramer asked whether the two would be at each other's throats, Hesse said, "We shook hands!" but later said he had concerns about whether the merger would "stifle innovation."

Mead spoke third Tuesday, and stayed out of the AT&T-Sprint feud. But his prepared statements elicited some laughs, seemingly unintentionally, in light of the vitriol from the preceding speakers.

"It's very good to share the stage with Ralph and Dan and to hear their comments," Mead said. "We're coming together in full force." Mead talked about "collaboration within the wireless industry" and "operating as an industry with the highest level of integrity."

Besides the T-Mobile deal, another storm cloud hung over Tuesday's gathering: last week's death of a renowned inventor.

CTIA president Steve Largent opened the conference with a brief tribute to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, saying "the development of the iPhone is at the top of the list" of major industry milestones. Google and Samsung canceled a news conference here, where they planned to unveil a new Android phone, as a sign of respect for Jobs.


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