SAN DEIGO—Sprint CEO Dan Hesse couldn’t leave the keynote stage Tuesday without a jab at AT&T – comparing AT&T Mobility chief Ralph de la Vega to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth – and de la Vega fired right back when he took the floor, calling Hesse “the best actor in wireless we have today.”
But despite his opening jab, de la Vega’s main message was one of collaboration and innovation. Wireless operators might not be collaborating much with each other – you won’t find Hesse and de la Vega playing kumbayah – but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize when working with outside players and even their competitors can be beneficial to themselves and the industry at large.
“It’s clear that collaboration is key to ongoing innovation,” de la Vega said. “In today’s environment, great ideas can come from anywhere.”
De la Vega said AT&T has changed how it does business both internally and externally to work better with outside players and be more receptive to ideas from its own employees. To that end, AT&T has built centers in Silicon Valley, Texas and Israel where developers can go to build apps and products. The facilities provide startups with crucial resources like APIs, SDKs and technical support to help bring their ideas to fruition.
Last week, de la Vega visited AT&T’s facility in Plano, Texas, and found it overrun with wirelessly enabled robots. “What I witnessed was something amazing,” he said.
AT&T also has internalized the spirit of cooperation exemplified in its development facilities. The company has adopted a venture capital model to get ideas from its employees and put them on the fast track to development.
The TIP crowd-sourcing platform – short for The Innovation Platform – allows ideas to be shared with a broad audience of potential partners within the company. So far, more than 100,000 employees form 40 countries are participating in the program.
The TIP platform has spurred more than 50 projects, including the newly announced AT&T Toggle, a security program for smartphones that separates business data from personal content with two different modes, a work mode and a personal mode. The program also led to the creation of AT&T’s DriveMode app, designed to prevent distracted driving.
Verizon Wireless President and CEO Dan Mead carried on in a similar vein during his keynote address, delivered after de la Vega.
Mead said the spirit of “mutual cooperation” between wireless operators has at times been highly beneficial to the industry, helping to forge roaming agreements, SMS interoperability, embed cellular connectivity into a range of devices and open networks to new products and applications.
Echoing de la Vega, Mead said that “cooperation and creativity are booming” at Verizon’s innovation centers in Waltham, Mass., and San Francisco. The facilities have helped create products like a digital jukebox that uses LTE instead of a fixed connection to update songs and cars that record impact information about hit-and-runs.
“Innovation is a constant requirement,” Mead said.
Mead ended his address with some words about government regulations, statements given extra weight by the fact that Verizon is currently suing the FCC over its net neutrality rules.
“Limited government intervention is the only way to ensure a vibrant competitive future,” he said, adding that the industry must “operate at the highest level of integrity” to avoid burdensome regulations.
When left to its own devices, Mead argued, the wireless industry can do great things. Wireless technology can be used to improve healthcare, run businesses more efficiently and help the planet.
At an intensely competitive and sometimes bitter time for the country’s top operators, it was a welcome message.