Battle of the network tradeshows

by Stephen M. Hardy

Much has been made of the increasing competition between cable multiple systems operators (MSOs) and telephone companies for dominance in the broadband arena. Those keeping score have used a variety of measuring sticks to determine who might be ahead and by how much: triple-play subscribers, homes passed, bandwidth per connection, etc. Last month provided another point of comparison: tradeshows.

Needless to say, tradeshows rank in relevance below the parameters I’ve just mentioned when it comes to ascertaining the comparative strengths of competing service provider types. Still, exhibitions can give you an idea of how healthy vendors think they are, as well as how much momentum (that ineffable quality of “buzz”) an industry segment might enjoy. With this in mind, I can’t resist the temptation offered by the confluence during the same week last month of NXTcomm (the latest incarnation of what used to be Supercomm) and The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ (SCTE’s) Cable-Tec Expo to see if I can draw any conclusions from the shows about the telco and MSO spaces.

Certainly the telco-associated NXTcomm had a lot going for it. The USTelecom/TIA partnership that had made Supercomm such a success was back together again, allowing exhibitors to focus their attentions on one show instead of two. And now that carriers have begun spending money on broadband to the home, Ethernet service transmission, wireless backhaul, IPTV, and a variety of other applications, the telecom dark ages appear to be over.

Among the reported total of more than 450 exhibitors, multistory booths re-emerged from mothballs, as did magicians, short-skirted booth attendants, skits, and loud music. The number of after-hours parties was probably double that of last year. Clearly, exhibitors as a whole had enough confidence in their current positions and the opportunities the show promised to spend significantly more money on their participation this year than they had in years past.

So all the ingredients were in place for so much buzz that it would make your head hurt. Well, all the ingredients except one, but it was an important one: attendees. Just about every exhibitor I questioned expressed surprise and disappointment at how few people had made it to the show floor. The exhibition certainly wasn’t a ghost town, and the visitors who did come lived up to the standard set by past incarnations of the event for high-quality potential and current customers. Yet there certainly weren’t as many “live ones” as the preshow catalysts would have led one to expect.

And like the proverbial tree in the forest, shows don’t have a buzz if there’s no one around to hear it.

Exhibit personnel offered several explanations for the shortfall, with the most commonly expressed being the overlap with Cable-Tec.

Yup, exhibitors theorized that the MSO show had stolen potential customers from the telco show. And they may be right-SCTE announced that Cable-Tec’s 10,700 attendees represented a 6% increase over the previous year. While the organizers of NXTcomm had not released attendance figures for this year’s show as this issue went to press, I doubt many would believe them if they claimed a similar jump.

So, based on this evidence, can we conclude that the MSO space is on the rise and the telco sector is still stagnant?

I think not. What we can conclude from the two shows, I believe, is that the telco sector clearly is in transition-and, as when an ocean liner makes a sweeping turn, the amount of energy involved doesn’t necessarily translate into an equal amount of acceleration. I also believe that we can conclude that several aspects of this transition (or, to continue along the lines of my seafaring simile, the exact course the liner will take when the turn is completed) remain unclear. For example, NXTcomm touted its targeted universe as “ICET.” One attendee told me that it took him weeks of reading show propaganda to realize that this acronym stood for “information, communications, and entertainment technology”-and he couldn’t think of any customers who thought of themselves as being in the “ICET business.”

Conversely, the MSO space appears to have a very clear idea of where it’s going and more of a consensus about the technology it’s going to use to get there. The straighter the line, the more quickly momentum gathers.

Of course, Cable-Tec still is a smaller show than NXTcomm-just as one could reasonably argue that the MSO space is smaller than the telco one. It’s easier to get a smaller ball rolling. But once a larger ball gets up to speed, it rolls powerfully.

Stephen M. Hardy
Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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