@ CTIA: Sparks Fly Over AT&T-T-Mobile Deal As Wireless CEOs Trade Jabs

Just days after AT&T’s stunning announcement of its intent to purchase T-Mobile, the men who would lead the three remaining dominant U.S. wireless carriers exchanged barbs Tuesday over the planned purchase and each other’s business models. Nothing exceptionally new emerged from the discussion, but the battle lines are clearly being drawn.

The man who has perhaps the most to lose from a combined AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile–Sprint’s Dan Hesse–was not shy about hinting where he stood. “My opinion doesn’t matter, I think the FCC and the DOJ will have an opinion,” he said, in response to questions from CNBC’s Jim Cramer during the opening session at the CTIA Wireless show. Earlier in the morning, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made it clear before he launched into a speech about a promising wireless future that he was not going to comment on the deal, which was announced Sunday.

AT&T’s Ralph De La Vega defended it against criticism from consumer advocates and many wireless industry professionals that the combined AT&T/T-Mobile would stifle competitiveness in the industry and harm consumers, lifting many talking points from AT&T’s press release. AT&T says the deal is pro-consumer because it will bring 4G LTE services to 95 percent of Americans and will improve existing service by giving the combined entity more access to spectrum and cell towers, but consumer groups worry that with nearly 80 percent of all wireless customers served by just two companies, prices will inevitably rise and choices could be restricted.

Verizon’s Dan Mead, on the other hand, played it coy, arguing that there’s plenty of innovation in the wireless industry and that Verizon has enough spectrum to meet its needs for the forseeable future. Verizon may be worried that if it goes on record opposing the AT&T deal that itself might have trouble trying to clear future megadeals with the U.S. government.

Mead said his company did not look at acquiring T-Mobile. “We didn’t think there was a need. We’ve been building through a series of great acqusitions and we’re confident in where we’re at for our customers.” Earlier, Mead told Reuters (NYSE: TRI) that his company was likewise not interested in acquiring Sprint (NYSE: S), which quickly became the focus of much speculation about possible Verizon counter-moves.

Aside from talk of the proposed merger–which was all anyone basically wanted to hear–Cramer asked the CEOs about several wide-ranging topics in the wireless industry, such as the need for more spectrum, which was discussed at length by Genachowski in his remarks. Among those topics: metering (Mead is interested, Hesse isn’t sure), poor wireless service (De La Vega said traffic management is the most difficult thing in wireless right now) and whether or not emerging powers like Facebook are friends to the wireless industry (all agreed that anybody who drives a lot of data usage is a friend).

Hesse got off by far the best lines on the panel. At one point, as De La Vega promoted the proposed merger’s potential to bring 4G LTE service to so many Americans, he quipped, “I thought you and T-Mobile had 4G already?” It’s a reference to the ongoing controversy over exactly what constitutes 4G speed, as well as AT&T’s recent practice of advertising and selling phones labeled as 4G that don’t have that capability turned on just yet, as AT&T completes the back-end network rollout needed for those speeds. He also broke into a question from Cramer meant for De La Vega about why mobile phone performance can be spotty, reminding Cramer of his complaints to Mead about the size of his wireless bill: “I thought you had Verizon service.”