Summary:

The biggest story of the year in the wireless industry didn’t wait for the beginning of this week’s CTIA Wireless conference in Orlando, but…

CTIA 2010
photo: Tricia Duryee

The biggest story of the year in the wireless industry didn’t wait for the beginning of this week’s CTIA Wireless conference in Orlando, but AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile’s merger plans are being driven by perhaps the most important underlying issue in wireless: the road to 4G.

Such are the perils of breaking news: we had been planning to focus our coverage of this week’s bi-annual wireless industry conference on 4G network strategies, and how the various U.S. wireless carriers are plotting the rollout of faster connections. However, one big question in that debate–what will T-Mobile do?–was answered Sunday afternoon with news that AT&T has proposed a $39 billion acquisition of the smaller carrier, which would create the largest wireless company in the U.S. and put T-Mobile’s customers on the path to LTE, the preferred 4G technology of AT&T and Verizon.

That means Tuesday’s keynote address, in which the CEOs of three of the four major wireless carriers in the U.S. will appear on a panel, will take on extra special significance, especially after All Things D reported that Philip Humm, CEO of T-Mobile, planned to drop out of the discussion. Given the intense amount of regulatory scrutiny that will likely accompany the review of this deal, don’t expect Ralph De La Vega, head of AT&T Wireless, to say too much, but it will nonetheless be interesting to hear him defend the deal alongside AT&T’s fiercest competitors.

While the megadeal will definitely be the talk of the conference, we also plan to focus on the key questions around 4G handsets and networks. There are several, perhaps the most basic being, what exactly does “4G” mean? How do carriers plan to get there, and how will device makers deal with the prospect of a fragmented 4G landscape if Sprint (NYSE: S) sticks to its WiMax plans? And how careful do consumers have to be about checking to see whether or not that 4G phone being advertised all over the NCAA Tournament is really capable of 4G speeds?

Sprint is expected to showcase several new devices at the show, with a big press conference planned for Tuesday lunchtime following the wireless CEO panel. With 2011 clearly getting off to a tablet-oriented start, one question looming over the wireless market is how tablets will work into the mix.

Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), the unquestioned leader in the tablet market, has managed to secure distribution deals with AT&T and Verizon for its iPad 2 that don’t involve two-year contracts, a staple of the smartphone industry. Will other tablet makers with less cachet than the iPad be able to strike the same deals, or will they have to rely on carrier subsidies to compete with Apple on price? One key question will be the preferences of tablet buyers for Wi-Fi-only devices versus those with both Wi-Fi and 3G data connections.

We’ll examine all these issues this week, and hope you’ll join us. Also feel free to let us know what questions or comments you might have for the wireless industry below, and we’ll try to answer as many as we can in our coverage over the course of the week.

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