Reading into things

One of the questions editors field just about every time they wander around an exhibition is, “So, what do you think of the show?” Needless to say, I was asked this question several times at the FTTH Conference in Las Vegas last month.

Most of the time, these questions apply only to the exhibit, where companies evaluate an event based on how many people walked up to their booth, whether those people represented current or potential customers, and whether the company walked away from the exhibit floor with a line on more business than they had when they arrived. For the rest of the attendees, including editors, such an evaluation also must include the conference program, where we’re interested in both what’s on the agenda and how well it meets our needs.

Such questions take on added meaning at events such as the FTTH Conference-events that clearly dominate trade show activity in a particular market niche. As the premier show for the FTTH market in North America, it’s tempting to use the FTTH Conference as a barometer for the space in general. If the show does well, that must mean good things for the market. If not…

If we can put such an onus on an event that’s only 5 years old, the FTTH Conference reflected a market that is beginning to mature. The exhibit was the biggest yet, which reflects the growing opportunity vendors see in the space. The composition of the exhibitors also has become more diverse. Whereas the exhibit booths in the first few events generally displayed the offerings of only four types of companies-cabling and infrastructure vendors, systems houses, distributors, and construction companies-this year’s exhibit area offered component suppliers from around the world, a new breed of company that offers more or less turnkey FTTH networks for developers and their residents, as well as content suppliers for people looking to fill their networks.

While the show floor wasn’t packed with attendees, the conference sessions were well attended. This tells me two things: An exhibit will lose out more times than not to the Vegas strip if one has to make a choice, and many of the municipalities, developers, utilities, and independent telcos that make up the majority of the attendee demographics are still more interested in exploring the concept of fiber to the home than they are in choosing vendors to supply the technology. In other words, much of the non-RBOC market remains in an information-gathering phase.

That said, that aspect of the market is much more well informed than it was several years ago. At past FTTH Conferences, attendees frequently looked at the systems and trenching tools like they were exotic animals at the zoo. This year’s attendees appeared to be much more knowledgeable-and there were more of them, a record-setting 2,100. The greater customer knowledge played out in the conference program as well. The ratio of vendor-to-user presentations was at an all-time low, meaning that the FTTH Council could find more carriers who could now speak from direct experience, rather than relying on vendors to talk about hypothetical ones.

The conference also saw more direct participation from the RBOCs, including a potentially incendiary panel on regulation and policy that had a representative from Verizon sharing the stage with Herb Baller, a lawyer who has championed the right of municipalities to build networks in potential competition with incumbent telcos and cable MSOs. With most of the conference attendees coming from non-RBOC sources-as were the majority of first-person FTTH accounts in the conference-there had been a tendency for some speakers to demonize the incumbents. The rhetorical thermostat was turned down this year, with RBOC and municipal camps operating under an atmosphere of détente. (The work the FTTH Council has done over the past year to support revision of video franchise legislation-an RBOC pet project-no doubt contributed to the friendlier feelings emanating from the incumbent side of the divide.) The Verizon speaker at this panel even said that his company “was not fundamentally opposed to municipal entry into broadband,” as long as it was clear that the market-meaning, no doubt, the incumbents-had failed to provide an alternative.

Of course, the definition of alternatives would probably prove open to debate. Nevertheless, the potential uncertainty about municipal and utility networking rights now appears to be the only cloud hanging over the FTTH horizon. Clearing up this uncertainty is an important step to a healthy market, particularly for vendors who can’t count an RBOC among their clients. The FTTH Conference demonstrated that FTTH in North America is well on its way toward becoming a fruitful opportunity for more than just two or three systems houses. It would be damaging if this opportunity suddenly soured because of anticompetitive regulation.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director & Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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