Live from D9: AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega takes the stage

Can you handle one more? Seriously? We're planted here in SoCal for the final day of D9, and we've got one more liveblog comin' your way. This go 'round, it's AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega, and while we've no evidence whatsoever that it'll be talked about, we're guessing the proposed (and highly conversed) T-Mobile USA merger will be the primary topic of discussion. Join us after the break for the blow by blow, won't you?

2:57PM Thanks for tuning in! That'll do for D9, but we'll be back sooner than you can turn around twice with E3 and WWDC!

2:56PM Whoa -- we just briefly met up with Ralph, and he said he *thinks* you can buy a full-price iPhone, call AT&T, and have it unlocked, despite the fact that the website says otherwise. He's planning to check in on it and get back with us -- we'll see. He also seemed adamant that the Veer 4G is indeed a 4G device, despite some fuzzy specifications there.

2:52PM That's a wrap! Wow, really intense -- hottest seat at the show, for sure. Let's just say we don't envy that guy.

2:51PM Ralph: "We're really excited about ISIS -- one of the things that concerned us, we didn't want to see a fragmentation of the technology. We formed together to attempt to unite the industry. To try to keep ISIS on an open playing field -- if you want to switch from one carrier to another, you take your wallet with you. That's the basis for us creating ISIS, to ignite the industry. It doesn't necessarily compete with Google Wallet -- we're talking with Google to attempt to put this altogether as one. This is an area people are still trying to feel out, but we're very open in this -- we want to replicate the real wallet you have today, with no worries over moving from one OS to another, or one carrier to another.

2:49PM Last question: Leslie, who used to work for T-Mobile -- "We talk a lot about mobile commerce, and I want to hear about the role of the carrier when your phone is the credit card."

2:47PM Ralph just said he "needed to verify" that you couldn't buy an unlocked GSM iPhone from AT&T. He so clearly has no concept of this -- the entire audience confirmed for him that even a full-price iPhone is locked to AT&T, making it useless to those who travel overseas and want to use a pre-paid SIM in whatever nation they land in. Pretty sad, actually.

2:46PM Ralph: "Regarding the merger question, we still have a great footprint -- we're going to be fine whether the merger happens or not, because we'll roll out LTE and HSPA+." He says that AT&T could do 80 percent of the US population, but the T-Mobile merger would allow that LTE rollout to hit 97 percent."

2:44PM Ralph: "We changed to call our technology 4G when the powers that be said that if you have something significantly greater than 3G, you can call it that." Sigh.

2:43PM Ralph: "Well, first, we don't call HSPA / HSPA+ '4G'." Josh and Ralph are arguing -- and Josh is right. AT&T totally does.

2:43PM Question: "What is the future for AT&T -- you've got damaged relationships, etc. -- if the merger doesn't go through?" That one's from Joshua Topolsky, by the way.

2:42PM That question came from Jason Calacanis, by the way, who clearly loathes AT&T.

2:42PM Ralph: "We have one of the lowest churn rates in the industry, though that is a great question. If a customer calls us, and we see a history of problems with this, they can provide the appropriate credit."

2:41PM Question: "If your customers all hate you so much, have you considered giving a discount to those who you have failed?" Audience applauds again!

2:39PM Ralph: "The main issues we've seen is on the data side. We try to attack things simply -- that was the huge problem, so that's where we've tried to offload data where possible. We're trying to make that seamless for the customer -- whenever you see an open WiFi spot, you can seamlessly migrate to that. We're working on that today."

2:38PM Ralph's answering a question on 3G-to-WiFi offloading, and why it doesn't apply to voice.

2:37PM Ralph: "We found that there's actually some interference there -- if you have very low signal at your house, a femtocell improves service. But if you have a mid-range or great signal, you may actually negatively impact your service. And that's why we aren't marketing these very heavily, and we're only giving them out to customers that we see as having great long-term value and that sit in bad reception areas." That's *highly* interesting! So, a femtocell could actually have a negative impact on your service.

2:35PM Question: "Why won't you just give tons of femtocells out to improve service?"

2:35PM Ralph just stated that T-Mobile USA and AT&T cannot share financial data with each other prior-merger. Natch.

2:34PM Ralph just spouted off a long-winded answer, and ended with this: "You're certainly welcome to pay full price and use it like that." Uh, that's not an answer. It's still locked, and it still won't work with any other SIM card unless you jailbreak it.

2:34PM "Why won't you unlock iPhones for inexpensive use overseas with international SIM cards?" Wow, the audience actually applauded!

2:33PM Questions from the audience!

2:33PM He wouldn't talk pricing, and we highly doubt it'll be available this year based on his remarks, but it seriously sounds like something he's considering. As in, more than just something that's being tossed around with no real hooks.

2:31PM Walt just pushed for clarification, and it's true -- Ralph's dreaming of a situation where you could have an iPad, an Atrix 4G, an AT&T netbook and who knows what else, all sharing a unified pool of minutes and data.

2:30PM Whoa, this is MEGA! This could seriously change the mobile industry if AT&T pulls this out.

2:30PM Ralph: "The jury is still out on that -- we're doing lots of research. But I think people may want a shared plan, but that's yet to be proven. We'd prefer to offer this, and we're working on it. I can't commit to a time frame."

2:29PM Walt: "Do you think people will want this month-to-month on all of their devices instead of just tablets?"

2:29PM Ralph: "Well, let me say first that you don't need a contract, and on the iPad, we developed that software that lets you buy data month-to-month without the need to visit a store."

2:28PM Walt: "Something different's happening with tablets and cellular -- at the moment, the tablet market is an iPad market. Some of these other ones are very nice, but they haven't attracted sales like the iPad has. And the way they handle the cellular option on their, it doesn't have a contract involved. Is that how all of our devices should work? Why do we have contracts?"

2:27PM Ralph: "In future phones, I want to see great devices -- iPhone or otherwise -- that excels with LTE. A device that works with LTE and HSPA+ (for fallback purposes), that's huge. Getting the latest and greatest tech in those devices and hooking them into the cloud will make a big impact in this industry."

2:26PM Ralph: "In the case of Apple, they are very, very concerned about information getting out. We've build (a special fence) to keep their data private."

2:25PM Ralph: "Ha! Jobs holds that very close to the vest, as you may know."

2:25PM Walt: "So, you're going to carry the next iPhone?"

2:25PM Ralph: "Jobs came to us and said, 'Hey, let me see the specs of your phones -- we've never built a phone.'" Microsoft collaborated with AT&T in U-verse, and he's pointing out that Ma Bell is a good collaborator with IBM and others. Ah, so that clarifies things a bit.

2:24PM Ralph: "I think the future will require collaboration. I call the deal with Apple a collaboration." Heh, well, at least that's clear!

2:24PM Kara: "Have you lost any power in this dynamic?"

2:23PM Ralph: "We have the access and hosting infrastructure to enable all of this to happen. We allow and facilitate customers, and we enable this innovation come to market."

2:23PM Walt: "Look, what is the role of the carrier? Why do you guys want to be something you aren't? Exert more control, get involved with hardware / software -- why? What is the role for a carrier in the ecosystems that Ballmer and Jobs are trying to build?"

2:22PM Ralph: "We make choices all the time when it comes to deciding what portfolio to bring on -- I won't name names, but it's not Nokia. But there was a manufacturer, and by the time they wanted to ship it, we told them we had to hold off because it was behind the buck. Now, we're working with them on a next-generation model." Hmm, Sony Ericsson, perhaps?

2:21PM Kara: "Do you have to make choices on those?"

2:21PM Ralph: "I concur with Nokia's Stephen Elop that this is becoming an ecosystem game, giving customers the ability to use a plethora of applications. Our view from the get-go is to give consumers the choice -- we carry devices from just about every maker out there."

2:20PM Kara: "How do you deal with the increased handset competition now?"

2:19PM Ralph: "We've just added a fourth 10MHz of spectrum in NYC, and we're working on a fifth. Call drops are getting better -- I agree that they drop too often right now. When phones today scan frequencies, they can scan up to three, and soon AT&T will have five."

2:19PM Ralph: "We're pulling every lever we can, but sometimes we run into things we haven't seen." Walt just asked how many towers are surrounding Mayor Bloomberg's house in NYC -- ha!

2:18PM Ralph: "In SF, it takes 2-3x longer to get a cite done compared to other major cities due to ordinances and whatnot." Nothing we haven't heard before, but man, red tape is killing us!

2:17PM Ralph: "In the financial district, we have omni-directional antennas that have be replaced. SF takes a very, very long time to get those replaced. It's a very deliberate process. In many cities, you have to put more cell sites out there -- with a merge, you'd be able to use AT&T or T-Mobile sites to get a signal."

2:16PM Kara: "Let's talk about quality. What's the problem with quality? In SF, for example."

2:16PM Ralph: "What I'm telling you is that you can reduce prices when you're combining technologies -- faster, better, cheaper. That's why I'm such a big proponent of accelerating LTE."

2:15PM Ralph: "The price per megabyte is less, but consumers are using more."

2:15PM Ralph: "The price per megabyte of data that AT&T has charged has dropped by 90 percent in recent years." Walt points out that AT&T must have been overcharging before -- ha!

2:15PM Ralph: "Over the last ten years, there have been five mergers. Based on government facts -- not our own -- mobile charges have dropped by 50 percent." Walt is stunned that his bill hasn't dropped.

2:14PM Ralph: "I don't agree. Look at LightSquared -- everyday it feels like someone new is coming into the industry. In my view, this is a super dynamic industry that gives consumers innovative products."

2:13PM Walt: "C'mon, your main (and only) competitor is Verizon."

2:12PM Ralph: "They have more spectrum when you consider Clearwire that AT&T / T-Mobile would ever have."

2:12PM Ralph: "I can't respond to that -- well, I can't refute what he says. But look at the numbers when you add Clearwire into the mix..."

2:12PM Walt: "But Sprint's Dan Hesse says this merger will kill them!"

2:11PM Ralph: "Sprint's smaller than us, but they still have millions of customers, and they're pretty big."

2:11PM Ralph: "I worry about people using non-factual information to make their points when it comes to this proposed merger."

2:10PM Ralph: "We waited for the technology to be a little more mature. But it works pretty well, Walt. LTE works very well. The battery life is a challenge, but that'll improve. So now, our goal is take this to 97 percent of the population, and do it as quickly as we can. I don't know when we'll catch up with Verizon, but I'm guessing the two carriers will match up with coverage in two to three years." Two to three years!

2:09PM Walt: "You lag Verizon tremendously with LTE deployment -- so this makes me wonder, why does this company deserve to control the greatest share in the US?"

2:09PM Walt: "Why should our government give you this great power given your history? When I look at 4G LTE -- I'm not an engineer -- but Verizon's LTE is in a complete class by itself compared to what Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T calls 4G. Verizon just blows AT&T away on everything that I've tested."

2:08PM We're getting down in the weeds here talking about who ranks where in LA, with Walt pointing out that lumping a pre-paid specialty carrier in as a competitor is a bit odd.

2:06PM Ralph: "In LA, there's five big players. T-Mobile USA has the lowest share -- MetroPCS is number four. In this market, AT&T is number two. Verizon's number one, and Sprint's number three."

2:05PM Walt's talking up competition, asking for share of the regional carriers.

2:05PM Ralph: "We're going to take LTE to 97 percent of the US population."

2:04PM Ah, the churn stayed the "same" through that -- now that actually is fairly impressive.

2:04PM Ralph: "They're happier now than they were. Let me give you a few facts -- if you look at our Q1 results, they speak for themselves. With Verizon launching an iPhone in the US, we reported the single largest amount of smartphone sales (5.5m+) in Q1 history for our company." Right, but how is this directly addressing gripes in the Big Apple?

2:03PM Walt: "But are your NYC customers happy with you? The ones I know aren't."

2:03PM "We have more customers that use smartphone apps, so we're seeing things in our network that others around the world have *never seen.* In NYC, we've devoted 40MHz to our HSPA network -- that's equal to four carriers -- and we're starting work on our fifth."

2:02PM "What we've seen with this data growth, no other carrier in the world has seen. We've number one in the world for quantity of HSPA customers. We have the most smartphones of any provider in the world."

2:02PM Ralph: "We aren't happy with that status, and we've improved on our network metrics. On a macro level, we have improved metrics in NY and SF -- the best we've seen in three years."

2:01PM Walt: "Why should we believe that AT&T is competent to manage what will become America's largest carrier, when you're consistently rated as providing the best service? Please don't take this personally!"

2:01PM Ralph: "We think you'll see improvements with this merger, similar to AT&T / Cingular. We saw churn rate reduced by 50 percent when that went down as people decided to stick around due to heightened quality."

2:00PM "In some cities that are dense -- NYC and SF -- it'll equal five to ten years of work for one of us. He just *promised* that quality would improve in both New York City and San Francisco.

1:59PM Ralph: "When we overlay our network to their network, it improves the quality and capacity for both customer bases."

1:58PM Ralph: "We're seeing spectrum usage that we've never seen before. It used to take two years to eat up 10MHz of spectrum, and now it takes around a year. Things aren't being driven by voice, but by data."

1:58PM Walt's getting right to it: "Why's it good for consumers if AT&T swallows up T-Mobile?"

1:57PM Again, the battery adapter should cost between $30 and $50, while the charge station will cost around $100 to $150 (consumer) and industrial ($300 to $500). They're now begging for venture capital, and we're guessing they'll have a few phone calls... right... about... now.

1:56PM There will be two models of the uBeam system: industrial model, meant for multi-person usage, and the consumer model. Coffee shops, bookstores and classrooms will use the former, so you could technically sit in a Starbucks all day (read: not recommended) and have your devices recharged wirelesly. It's unclear if your laptop would be included, though -- that's some pretty heavy power draw.

1:52PM In other words, if your charging puck is "in your pocket, it probably won't charge," as it really needs to be out in the open to receive the signals. There's your catch, we suppose. But hey, baby steps! Wireless power has a long way to go, but at least we're talking about it being a reality rather than a pipe dream.

1:52PM Ah, we're told that the waves couldn't transmit "through a human," so the optical place for the transmitter would be in a ceiling.

1:51PM uBeam's giving us a short pitch on how the tech works -- effectively, there's vibrations of transducers that generate electrical currents and can be beamed over the air. Yeah, we've heard of wireless power before, but these guys actually expect to ship a product by the year's end. And they just graduated from uPenn, and couldn't tell a lie if they tried.

1:49PM About the size of a flash drive, uses ultrasound technology to transfer power (i.e. totally safe for humans and pets alike), and the current model takes around 3.3 hours to charge the "battery puck" that we mentioned on our earlier coverage.

1:48PM Ah, Walt just pulled a fast one -- we'll have to wait a few minutes on Ralph, as uBeam (a startup we covered here on Day 1) is taking the stage to (re)show off its wireless power demo.

1:45PM Things are running just a bit behind, so now we're reading about Google email hacks in China.

1:42PM Pixeled people are watching over us. And yeah, AT&T service seems great in here.

1:41PM What the hey? We'll read along, too. "Microsoft to limit tablets" says the headline. Probably a solid read, if not a touch controversial. The fine print's a bit... fine, though.

And we're in! Some guy's reading a newspaper about tablets. A newspaper.