Expert Insight: The changing face of CTIA

By Andrew M. Seybold 

The first CTIA conference was held in 1985, only a few years after the first cellular service was offered commercially in the United States. At that first conference, there were no exhibits—that didn’t occur until 1987. Those first exhibitors were promoting towers, antennas, buildings, generators and all manner of hardware for building cell sites. There were also equipment vendors showing racks of cell site equipment and wireless device vendors showing the latest and greatest mobile phones, which had to be professionally installed in a vehicle. 

The wireless industry has changed dramatically since that first conference in 1985 and when you walk into the CTIA Wireless 2007 exhibit area on March 27, you will see 1,000 exhibitors in 440,000 square feet of space. Some of the original vendors will be on hand, but the vast majority of exhibitors won’t be offering hardware for cell sites. Instead, you will see mostly devices for customers and a lot of content that runs over the networks to these devices. 

In the early days, the show was about building an industry, building networks and providing voice services for customers. Today, while all of the networks are expanding and a number of them are being upgraded to 3G technologies, the focus of the industry has changed in every way but one: The primary goal is still to sign up customers on your network and keep them happy.  

In a few short years, we have evolved from a self-contained industry primarily focused on building out cell sites and signing up voice customers on the networks to an industry that is attracting interest from many different market segments that recognize that our society has become truly mobile and that we want to be able to talk, send messages back and forth, listen to music and even watch TV no matter where we are. 

At CTIA Wireless 2007, you will see exhibits from companies such as Fashion in Motion, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Garmin and others that, if you think about it, would never have considered a booth at a CTIA show even a few years ago, let alone ten years ago. You will also see a large number of software companies, companies that have content to share and companies that are developing applications for the wireless industry. 

The wireless ecosystem used to be defined as “from chips to devices.” This included back-end services and switches, infrastructure, towers and antennas. Today’s wireless ecosystem is much larger and encompasses these types of companies as well as Internet companies, companies with Internet Protocol routers and equipment, software developers, music companies, movie studios, TV networks and more. And now the new, expanded wireless industry is poised for a fresh burst of growth. 

Some of this growth will come from the addition of more applications and software across the networks, but it will also come from the addition of companies that successfully bid on the AWS spectrum and companies that are gearing up to bid on the 700 MHz spectrum, if and when,  it is auctioned. And don’t forget WiMAX, which will mostly likely be built out by more companies than Sprint and Clearwire.  

The wireless industry has gone through a period of consolidation, going from six nationwide network operators down to four, and a number of smaller networks have been bought out. However, the number of subscribers has continued to grow and is now pushing past 230 million in the United States alone.  

We are now heading for a period of industry expansion with new networks, partners and interested parties. Can our industry sustain more network operators? Will the Internet on our mobile devices drive traffic and make it possible for more companies to build out networks and make money? Those firms around the edges of the wireless industry that are looking to become involved will answer this question with an emphatic “yes,” I am sure. But with two-thirds of the nation’s population already using wireless services of one type or another, it could be a challenging few years. 

As you wander around CTIA Wireless 2007 looking for the next big thing, keep the industry’s two basic goals in mind: The first is to attract new subscribers and the second is to get existing subscribers to spend more each month. When you look at the products and services being shown on the show floor, ask yourself whether you would pay for them out of your own pocket. This may not be a scientifically valid form of research, but it is as good an indicator as we have as to what subscribers want and will pay for. 

Andrew Seybold is a respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author andactive participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.