On the final day of the wireless industry's giant trade show, a show featuring the latest in glitzy gadgets and fast networks, the message from the executive suite was clear: Keep things simple.

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NEW ORLEANS — On the final day of the wireless industry’s giant trade show, a show featuring the latest in glitzy gadgets and fast networks, the message from the executive suite was clear: Keep things simple.

Top officials from five of the largest U.S. wireless carriers yesterday encouraged the broader industry to remain innovative, but not at the risk of making devices and services that are difficult to use.

The call for simplicity came at the annual Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association wireless conference, which drew about 35,000 people from 90 countries. The event concluded yesterday with a roundtable discussion moderated by CTIA’s President and Chief Executive Steve Largent.

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The panel consisted of Robert Dotson, president and chief executive of T-Mobile USA; Scott Ford, Alltel’s president and chief executive; Len Lauer, president and chief operating officer of Sprint; Stan Sigman, Cingular Wireless’ president and chief executive; and Tim Donahue, president and chief executive of Nextel Communications.

Out of their discussion emerged an overarching theme: the need to build better networks and keep the wireless industry user-friendly.

“Making it simple is the biggest issue we have to solve,” Lauer said.

Conference attendees gave the award for “Winning Wireless Widget” to a device that embodies simplicity: the Firefly phone.

The phone is targeted at kids ages 8 to 12, but appeals to parents because it is limited in what it can do.

The size of a pager, the phone has only five buttons. Two are designated for calling Mom and Dad. Another connects to the address book, which can hold up to 22 numbers.

Priced at about $99, it’s expected to be available in May from Firefly’s Web site through Cingular.

Judging by opinions on the panel, the Firefly is the exception to a rule.

“Every new device, we fall in love with. Customers would be better served with fewer and better,” said Dotson, who heads Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA.

Dotson talked about what he called the “Santa Claus effect”: the rush to launch new devices right before the Christmas shopping season. That overzealous approach, he said, results in unhappy customers who drop the devices from January through March because they didn’t work well enough.

“I know we’ve had to be more disciplined,” he said.

The complexity of the wireless business goes beyond the handset, Sigman said. “There’s a lot of complexity in rate plans,” he said.

With roaming rates, free weekends, family plans and more that subscribers can choose from, variations in bills seem endless. Sigman said that when Cingular merged with Redmond-based AT&T Wireless last year, there were 120 different rate plans between the two.

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The Firefly phone, designed for young children, was named “Winning Wireless Widget” in a vote of conference participants.

The list was quickly narrowed to 19, but “it’s still confusing,” he said.

“The challenge continues to help the customer understand what their bill will be,” Sigman said. “They think it’s going to be $39 and then it’s not.”

Donahue, the Nextel CEO, discussed another back-to-basics issue: the continuing installation of cell towers to give customers better coverage.

He said carriers started figuring out that coverage was especially important as the federal number-portability rule was implemented.

The rule allowed customers to take their phone numbers with them if they changed carriers, and improving network coverage was important to keeping customers.

“I think portability helped us,” Donahue said. “The emphasis on the network is where it needs to be. It was a wakeup call, and we’ve spent a lot of time and effort behind it.”

He said Nextel plans to build more cell sites than it’s done before.

Taking a broader view, Sigman said that as networks and devices become capable of receiving new content and applications, the industry needs to make sure each step in using them is quick and easy.

“We are all challenged to simplify the business,” he said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com