In less than three decades transformative technologies—wireless, the Internet and mobile phones—have revolutionized our professional and social lives. Today more people are using mobile phones than PCs and automobiles combined.

“In 2010, for the first time, we carried more data traffic in the U.S. [on our cell phones], such as web browsing, emails and text messages, than voice messages. By 2017 traffic volume will be six times 2008,” according to Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, adding that by 2031 five billion people worldwide will be mobile subscribers.

But AT&T’s plan to merge with T-Mobile might change things. According to Hesse, the wireless industry’s innovative power is seriously threatened. “If AT&T is allowed to swallow T-Mobile, innovation and growth will be stifled and wireless innovation will be jeopardized,” he said.

The merger would put 80% of wireless-industry revenues in the hands of the two carriers, restricting access to [wireless] device makers among smaller companies. The result? “Innovation and competitiveness will be harmed and progress in green innovation will be stifled,” Hesse explained.

He added that “the economic impact of the thriving wireless industry is undeniable. Savings for companies that use wireless will increase from an estimated $18 billion in 2005 to almost $73 billion by 2016.”

Replenish, a new eco-friendly cellphone

Sprint has long been an innovation leader. It introduced the first fiber-optic cable and 4G network to the U.S. as well as eco-friendly cell phones. Cell phones are central to American youth -- 58% of 12-year-olds and 83% of 17-year-olds own mobile phones. Smart phones are replacing calculators, cameras, camcorders and books.

But most cell phones are made from toxic materials. Millions of used phones are causing environmental concern, as only 10% are recycled in the U.S. annually. It is estimated that 140 million end up in landfills, accounting for 65,000 tons of waste material.

Sprint decided to attack the problem with innovation, by developing the fourth green phone, Replenish, made by Samsung. Made of 80% recycled material, it is energy efficient and environmentally friendly. “The recycling rate of our devices is 90%,”said Hesse. Later, the phone, which costs just $49.99, will come with an optional $29 solar-charger back panel.

Though affordable, green phones are not selling as well as iPhones or the EVO 4G. Market share is still small, though individual sales are going well, says Hesse. Because it is profitable despite the small numbers sold, Sprint is still investing in green cell phones, though they experienced pushback when launching their first such phone.

Research showed that customers didn’t care about the green characteristic. But, Hesse said, “customers don’t always know what they want. In the end, they weren’t calling Steve Jobs for an iPad, nor Henry Ford for a car. We just went ahead and did it.” He continued: “This is a roadmap for more green devices. We don’t have the market power to lead in this initiative, but we show how the industry can go in this direction.”