It's not the shows; it's who shows up

The quiet of summer has given way to the fall trade-show season—and three events in September should give us all a clear signal about what 2004 will bring.

The National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (NFOEC) starts off the industry's itinerary Sept. 7-11 in Orlando, FL. Long regarded as a gathering for the RBOCs and those wishing to sell equipment to them, NFOEC has traditionally balanced OFC's component orientation with an emphasis on systems and network deployment issues. For this reason, it has also been an important show for those in the long-haul space.

As I don't need to remind you, last year was horrible for the long-haul community. And last year's NFOEC was—well, let's just say it was very quiet. Needless to say, the empty exhibit aisles didn't bode well for a rebound in the long-haul market this year, and that omen certainly has proved accurate.

Thus, it will be interesting to test the mood—and size—of the show this year. It's reasonable to expect fewer exhibitors and probably attendees this year. The question is how much those numbers will dwindle.

The show's host, Telcordia Technologies, has already adapted the program to meet current expectations for next year. Carrier investment should focus on metro and access infrastructure, with the current fiber to the premises (FTTP) initiative the most visible manifestation. Four technical sessions will target access applications, and an equal number will highlight the metro. You can bet that sessions on optical Ethernet, SANs, CWDM, and network economics will touch on these two applications as well (as might a session I'm chairing Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 3:30 pm that will cover 10-Gbit/sec transceiver/transponder multisource agreements—if you'll pardon the shameless plug). Telcordia has also beefed up the program with a pavilion sponsored by the organizers of the Gigabit Ethernet Conference. In addition, SPIE—the International Society for Optical Engineering—will collocate its ITCom event with NFOEC as well as provide an expanded roster of short courses.

While no one will be expecting to hear "happy days are here again," vendors at the show will at least hope to hear something from someone other than the occupants of the booth next door. Financial analysts have already begun to predict that the RBOCs will not be as focused on improving their margins in the near-term as they have in the past. Nevertheless, none of the analysts expect a significant increase in capital expenditures (capex) in 2004; the key will be how much of an essentially flat capex budget will go to optical infrastructure. The answer to this question—and whether more than a handful of attendees are there to receive it—will be as important to the future of the show itself as to that of the market it serves.

Two weeks later, attention will turn from the U.S. market to Europe when the European Conference on Optical Communication (ECOC) kicks off in Rimini, Italy. The show's organizers once again have tapped an international pool of presenters for a conference that focuses on technical research, primarily at the component and subsystem level. While access networks will provide the theme for a few sessions, the word "metro" doesn't appear in any session titles, which is not surprising given the geographical makeup of a market in which national networks are roughly the size of regional networks in the United States.

But with the conference's emphasis on technology developments, market watchers will have to go to the show floor and collocated Liquid Europe forum for predictions on how much demand there will be for such technical innovations. As far as attendance is concerned, ECOC is by far the largest and most prestigious of the European optical shows. However, the once burgeoning fiber-optic community in that region of the world has been hit hard by the downturn. Again, strength for many will lie in numbers, and a small turnout for the show will send a strong negative signal for next year.

September will end with an event that has forecasting at its heart: the 26th annual Newport Conference, which KMI Research and Strategies Unlimited (Lightwave's research siblings here at PennWell) will hold Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. As usual, the first night will see analysts from both market research and analysis firms offer new predictions and defend old ones in front of a demanding audience. The subsequent presentations, besides looking at the metro and access spaces, will also reflect another trend in the market: looking for applications outside of traditional communications markets.

Combined, the three September events should provide the first good look at what 2004 will be like. In all cases, who is around to listen will be as important as what is said.

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