Super Mobility conference starts to find its footing - but CTIA can still make improvements

Phil Goldstein

I left Las Vegas on Friday as CTIA's Super Mobility 2015 conference drew to a close with a sense of cautious optimism for the conference. In its second-annual incarnation the umbrella super conference was more focused and had a bit more buzz than it did during the first go-around in 2014.

The 2015 conference drew 30,000 attendees, according to CTIA, which was the same number as what Rob Mesirow, CTIA's vice president and show director, told me had attended the conference in 2014. Even though attendance was flat year-over-year, the qualitative differences were noticeable.

The keynotes were well-attended and informative -- and even entertaining at points. The show floor seemed to have more activity than it did last year, though some exhibitors still felt like there was too little floor traffic and there were only a few major booths, including from Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and Samsung. And even though many of the major device OEMs announced their new smartphones and smart watches at IFA in Berlin and did not bother to send major teams to Super Mobility, that also seemed to work in the show's favor. Super Mobility is starting to find its footing on what kind of trade show it is, and more importantly, what it isn't.

The Consumer Electronics Show is the place where, every January, the world is inundated with new TVs, home goods and a display of how mobile is suffusing all aspects of consumer technology. Mobile World Congress is truly the world's mobile conference, with carriers and device makers from all over the world coming to Barcelona to make business deals, announce news and push the global wireless conversation forward. IFA is the world's electronics trade show, and OEMs have recently used it to unveil globally-focused mobile devices.

So where does that leave Super Mobility? It's definitely a North American-focused show, which means that a lot of wireless companies, both big and small, will still continue to use MWC as their preferred venue to make business deals, unveil new products and announce news. CTIA seemed to recognize this this year and did not strain to replicate IFA or MWC's global reach. After parting ways with the Competitive Carriers Association, which is holding its annual fall convention in October, and dropping a mobile payments-focused event, Super Mobility had a more streamlined feel, which I think served it well.

CTIA heavily pushed attendees to the Open Innovation Summit aimed at CIOs, as well as partner events like the Tower and Small Cell Summit, Rural Wireless Summit and Media Technology Summit. That last event was aimed at CMOs and those who specialize in advertising, content and media and limited to "an elite group of 350 senior executives, investors, entrepreneurs, and media dealmakers," and it featured speakers like iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman, AOL CMO Allie Kline, Chip Hall, managing director of programmatic platforms at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), and Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook (NASDAQ: FB). Even though it was a small, clubby event, it's a growing part of the mobile ecosystem, as witnessed by Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) recent $4.4 billion purchase of AOL, and AOL's subsequent acquisition of Millennial Media. I'm glad CTIA is addressing the topic.   

The keynotes were popular and well-attended and were among the highlights of the show. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he is "supremely confident" that the 600 MHz incentive auction will happen next March as planned, which should be reassuring to carriers. AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) CEO Glenn Lurie described the carrier's Internet of Things vision more fulsomely. Verizon's Marni Walden dug into the nitty gritty of the company's over-the-top video plans and the future of mobile video advertising with assists from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and David Penski, chief commercial officer at digital advertising firm VivaKi. And Sprint (NYSE: S) CEO Marcelo Claure offered up his plans for turning around the carrier while also showing flashes of humor -- noting that it was easier to recruit foreigners to move to Kansas City, Mo., near Sprint's Overland Park, Kan., headquarters, because to them it's the U.S.

Super Mobility was not without its flaws. If it seemed more streamlined, it was still a bit disorienting, with some co-located events located far away from the main show floor at the Sands Expo & Convention Center or in random ballrooms spread throughout the Venetian. The fact that device makers largely stayed away because they had already unveiled their wares at IFA deprived the show of some juice.

And while it's difficult to schedule around Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), given that conferences need to be booked well in advance of when Apple reveals the dates of its own events, the fact that Apple keeps announcing its iPhones during Super Mobility doesn't exactly help draw visibility to the show (though because this year was an "S" update, it did not have as much of an effect as last year).

One other glaring omission, from the keynotes and otherwise, continues to be a lack of presence from T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and its charismatic and brash CEO, John Legere. Maybe CTIA doesn't want to give him a keynote because he would go off script – and bash competitors or the wider industry. Maybe Legere and T-Mobile view Super Mobility as the "old way of doing business." Whatever the case may be, I hope the two sides find a way to work together, because if Super Mobility is a U.S.-centric trade show, it makes sense to hear from the carrier that has been driving much of the change in the U.S. industry the last two years. Legere's presence would attract buzz and attendees, and I think would help more than it would hurt.

Overall though, I think CTIA is starting to learn from the missteps of the 2014 Super Mobility show and make improvements. Hopefully it will continue to become a more focused, unified experience for attendees, and draw in a larger audience in the process. --Phil

P.S. Be sure to check out our coverage of our breakfast panels, "Inside the Building of a Smart City," which took place on Sept. 9, and "Behind the 5G Crusade: How to Define and Deliver the Next Generation of Wireless," which happened on Sept. 10.