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Investors Ready to Roll the Dice on Wireless

The Consumer Electronics Show may generate the lion's share of tech headlines when it comes to gadget trade shows, but hot on its heels is the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association expo in Las Vegas beginning Tuesday. CTIA, as it's known, may become the CES of the next generation, as the world goes wireless and more and more attention is lavished on all things mobile.

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Size-wise, CTIA still doesn't compare to CES, and that might indeed be one of the show's strengths. The all-stars still attend, along with a healthy crop of all-stars in training.

But without the crush of more than 2,500 companies and 100,000 attendees at CES, the companies at this show stand a far better chance of getting their news heard and their products noticed. And when it comes to real news, no other sector offers more tech headlines than wireless.

We are certainly expecting to get the details behind the new 4G Supersonic handset from HTC. Early reviews suggest that the phone doesn't perform as fast as you might think with 4G network support, but at the very least it shows that the industry is moving toward 4G and Sprint Nextel is the early leader. AT&T and Verizon are close behind, however, with faster networks of their own. And with arguably a better stable of upcoming handsets from the likes of Samsung, Research in Motion, HTC and Nokia, Sprint runs the risk of being eclipsed again by its much bigger competitors in the marketplace.

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Apple will not be in attendance, but that doesn't mean its presence won't be felt. Everyone is trying to compete not only with iPhone, but with the yet-to-be-released iPad. Tablet PCs may have finally seen their day come and we're expecting a look-see at the latest offering from Samsung, and possibly a better glance at a new tablet from Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

The fact is, wireless and all the devices it encompasses, are seeing exponential growth. Just in smart phones alone, Gartner sees sales tripling by 2012, from 139.3 million in 2008 to almost 492 million units. PC growth is no slouch, going from 291 million units to 443 million units over the same period, but obviously the pace of growth is far slower.

All that growth is obviously attracting the attention of just about every corner of tech. No longer just about handset makers and their new wares, the smartphone category is just as much about big software companies like Microsoft and Google also looking to stake their claim. Microsoft's new Windows Mobile software has been met with positive reviews, and Google's Eric Schmidt says smart phones running his Android Operating System are selling 60,000 units a day. (Though it should be noted that Google's own handset entry, the Nexus One, has only sold about 135,000 units so far and is widely viewed as a sales disappointment, likely because of its extremely costly, no-contract price tag.)

It's not just about software either. Chipmakers are also seeing a new battle theater open in mobile. While it's true that Intel has been a Johnny-come-lately to the wireless war, the company is prepared to come on strong right now. It's Atom microprocessor has been an enormous hit in low-cost netbooks, and now Intel is readying a version of that same chip for a new class of smart phones.

LG will likely be the first to use this chip, but others will likely follow. That's a competitive headline worth noting for the likes of Qualcomm, which has seen big-time success with its super-speedy, but also pricey, Snapdragon microprocessors; and Texas Instruments, which has been a perennial chip leader in the mobile space and might actually see a nice pop in business with the rising tide of smart phone sales. Innovation by Intel and Qualcomm might actually help TI sales, not hurt them.

Richard Kerslake, Texas Instruments' Investor Relations director, is more than optimistic about smartphone sales, telling us: "If you drill down and look at the smart phone market, of around the 1.2 billion phones that people expect to be shipped this year, around 250 million of those will be smart phones." The potential for growth is huge.

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Still, success can also breed problems. As more and more mobile devices are snapped up by consumers, the networks on which they run are getting overloaded. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled its National Broadband Plan which should begin to alleviate the network bottlenecks that have been so frustrating to millions. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and others have heard those complaints and have been trying to build out new infrastructure as quickly as possible.

But the expenses have been enormous, and the build-outs can't happen fast enough. Cisco recently unveiled its new router, the CRS-3, which the company says, once deployed, will be the key tool in expanding network capabilities. Cisco will be a key attendee at this year's show.

Google has also announced plans for a new, high-speed network of its own. While it will only be a trial network available for about a half million customers nationwide, the news shows how non-traditional companies are trying to seize on the wireless momentum. The Google announcement might have served as a wake-up call to other network service providers, and that is why the Cisco news was so important. Cisco seemed to be suggesting: You may be worried about the Google news, but we're ready and willing to offer you the tools to mute that competitive threat.

Competition is steep; innovation is alive and well; and it all comes together at CTIA Wireless 2010. Tech's attention, as well as Wall Street's, will be fixed on Las Vegas like it never has been before.

Look for our coverage from CTIA Wireless 2010 on-air and online, Tuesday March 23 through Thursday March 25, including a special edition of "Power Lunch" on Wednesday March 24.