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AT&T's Ralph De La Vega on T-Mobile, Toll-Free Data and More

In an interview with Re/code, the head of AT&T's mobile unit says that T-Mobile's tough talk is just that: talk.

Asa Mathat

T-Mobile has been launching lots of attacks at AT&T, but Ralph de la Vega says it is mostly just talk.

“I’m pretty proud of the fact we have the nation’s fastest and most reliable network,” AT&T Mobility’s CEO said in an interview with Re/code on Monday. “They can say whatever they want to say, but they don’t have it.”

De la Vega said AT&T also comes out ahead in the realm of customer service, pointing to J.D. Power awards for both customer care and purchasing of wireless service. On the network side, he noted that a Root Metrics study had AT&T with the best or tied-for-best network in 90 of 125 cities, compared to just two for T-Mobile.

“You can do the math on that one,” he said.

While T-Mobile is widely expected to announce a plan this week to lower the cost of switching to its network, AT&T fired a pre-emptive strike last week, offering up to $450 in credits for T-Mobile customers switching to AT&T.

De la Vega said that AT&T has made remarkable strides in network quality over the past few years, something T-Mobile customers may not be aware of. “We thought it would be a good idea to give T-Mobile customers an incentive to try it out and compare,” he said.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere called that offer a “desperate move” and said his customers won’t be fooled. He pointed to a number of changes T-Mobile has made to both remove pain points and cut costs for customers. Over the past year, it has done away with long-term contracts and device subsidies, launched its $10-per-month Jump early upgrade program and slashed the cost for using a phone on an overseas trip.

But de la Vega said that while T-Mobile has been cutting prices, AT&T has been investing in the future of the wireless business, including the connected car and a just-launched service allowing businesses to offer toll-free data service to consumers.

“I think we continue to forge ahead, even as competitive as this marketplace is,” he said.

As for the sponsored data service, de la Vega sees it as an opportunity for companies large and small to introduce their services to would-be customers.

He shrugged off concerns from some consumer groups that the service would allow rich companies to gain a stranglehold on consumers because they can afford to underwrite data charges in ways that smaller competitors might not be.

AT&T has promised that sponsored data won’t be delivered any faster or more reliably than non-sponsored data.

“Essentially it is a billing service,” he said. “That’s really all it is. It’s nothing to do with ‘Net neutrality’ principles.”

As for how much of AT&T’s data traffic is eventually provided in a sponsored format, de la Vega said it is tough to say.

“These kind of things start small and then they take their own natural course,” he said. “I can see that it could be a significant portion down the road.”

Meanwhile, de la Vega pointed to the connected car as perhaps the biggest change that customers haven’t really seen coming. Having a hotspot in the car opens up all kinds of possibilities. He pointed to an app called Famigo that AT&T is providing to customers of the new AT&T-powered 4G OnStar service. The app provides kid-friendly options for children using a tablet while a parent is driving.

“You don’t have to turn around to see what the kid is doing in the back seat,” de la Vega said.

As importantly, AT&T is eyeing all those connected cars as a huge new opportunity. While it hasn’t announced pricing, de la Vega said that AT&T is planning attractive options both for current AT&T customers adding a GM car to their shared data plan as well as for those who use phones on another carrier.

This article originally appeared on

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