CES 2011: Smartphones, tablets and speedy networks run the show

Consumer Technology Columnist Rob Pegoraro talks about the big things happening on day one of the largest consumer technology event in the world: Internet TV, 3DTV and, of course, tablet computers.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 9:03 PM

LAS VEGAS - Tablets and smartphones took the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show on Thursday, with Motorola, Samsung and LG showering attendees with dozens of faster and more powerful devices that will reach consumer hands this year.

And to make those gadgets run high-definition streaming videos and online games, mobile service carriers showcased their new high-speed Internet networks. Verizon Communications Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg launched the convention with a keynote speech outlining his company's vision to provide faster Internet connections on mobile phones and on the fiber lines that run into its 15 million customers' homes. Verizon, Sprint Nextel and AT&T are in a race to attract customers for their recently launched high-speed mobile networks.

"The sheer scale of connection of this new world will be truly mind-boggling," Seidenberg said in his morning keynote. Verizon jointly owns Verizon Wireless with the British company Vodafone.

The high-speed connections extend well beyond phones and tablets, Seidenberg said. Audi, Hyundai and Ford showcased souped-up dashboards and technology in cars that let you check e-mail and stream television to the kids riding in the back seat through voice commands and car Web connections. For the first time, CES allowed home appliance makers into the show with items such as a refrigerator that can alert you when the milk is running low.

For the thousands who showed up to hear Seidenberg's keynote, however, the chief executive didn't answer the biggest question on consumers' minds: Will the iPhone become available on Verizon?

The rumors of a partnership between Verizon and Apple have excited the wireless firm's 90 million users, who have been left out of AT&T's exclusive deal to carry the iPhone. Federal regulators are also taking a look at such exclusive partnerships, examining whether they serve consumer interests.

Verizon instead has focused on its partnerships with Motorola and Google on Android software devices. Seidenberg showcased the Motorola Xoom tablet - aimed directly at competing with Apple's iPad - and smartphones including the Droid Bionic, an upgraded version of its popular Droid phone.

Motorola said the Xoom tablet, which has Flash video software and cameras for videoconferencing and regular photos, will be available in February as the first tablet running on Google's Android Honeycomb operating system. LG announced its G-Slate tablet to run on T-Mobile's network, and Research in Motion unveiled the Blackberry Playbook tablet for Sprint.

Seidenberg and others were optimistic about the future of technology growth for their businesses.

"With over 2 billion Internet users worldwide, this is the biggest technology market the world has ever known," he said. Nine in 10 people have cellphones in the United States and the consumption of Internet data on wireless networks is more than doubling every year, he said.

That growth shouldn't be deterred by government rules, carriers said.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission passed "Net neutrality" rules that prohibit Internet providers from blocking or favoring traffic from particular Web sites into customers' homes. But the agency spared wireless networks from most of the rules, and telecom executives said Thursday that the government was wise to stay out of the burgeoning market for mobile Internet.

"Four years ago, there was no apps market, and innovation is well underway at CES," James Cicconi, AT&T's executive vice president for external affairs, said in a panel discussion. "Job number one for policy is not to mess it up."

Neil Fried, a house staffer for the Energy and Commerce Committee, said during the Net neutrality panel discussion that the first priority for his committee, which was turned over to Republicans this week, is to overturn the FCC's rules. Verizon Communications Executive Vice President Tom Tauke said that his firm doesn't support the agency's Internet regulations and is studying what it might do in response to the rules. Industry experts are watching whether Verizon or another carrier challenges the FCC decision in courts.

Clouding future prospects of mobile industry growth, however, is whether government regulators will convince broadcasters to give up spectrum to be used for expanding wireless broadband networks, said Gary Shapiro, president of the trade group Consumer Electronics Association.

In an opening speech, he said the government hasn't focused enough on trade agreements and immigration reforms that would bolster the tech industry. And he called broadcasters "squatters" on valuable spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband networks.

But the National Association of Broadcasters said its business plans for mobile live television rely on the airwaves it leases. The FCC has proposed incentives to get the broadcasters to voluntarily give up those airwaves in auctions.

"I say let's see the check in the mail," association President Gordon Smith said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company