NEW YORK--Recent consolidation among commercial wireless operators in the U.S. will set the stage for next-generation, or 3G, wireless networks to proliferate in the U.S., said Nobuharu Ono, president and CEO of NTT DoCoMo USA, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest wireless carrier, speaking at the Radio Club of America’s annual awards banquet on Friday.

Recently, the FCC and the Department of Justice approved the SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI mergers, which would allow the new companies to compete more effectively in the enterprise sector with Sprint Nextel, whose merger was approved in September, assuming that SBC/AT&T, now known solely as AT&T, and Verizon/MCI develop their own push-to-talk services to go head-to-head with Sprint Nextel’s popular iDEN service.

Ono credited U.S. vendors with wireless innovations such as Wi-Fi and WiMAX, but said “their impact is up for debate.” He also noted that the U.S. trails far behind Japan in the development of 3G networks and services, which NTT DoCoMo pioneered with the development of its iMODE platform. Such services are extremely popular in Japan, said Ono, who reported that 17 million of NTT DoCoMo’s subscribers in that country are using 3G handsets. That number is expected to grow to about 23.5 million by the end of 2006, which would represent about half of the carrier’s subscriber base, Ono said.

However, he added that the “better economics” resulting from the mergers would make it more feasible for the three mega-carriers to invest in next-generation networks. “The stage is set for the U.S. to once again be a leader in the development of wireless technology,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how fast 3G services take off now in the U.S.”

Ono recounted some of the growing pains NTT DoCoMo went through as it developed the iMODE platform, which is based on wideband CDMA technology. “Management didn’t see the vision at first,” he said. “They thought cell phones were just for business. They didn’t think people would download ring-tones or cartoon character screen savers.”