Three-hundred and fifty million mobile-phone users in the US need a show. The CTIA, our nation's mobile-industry trade organization, wants to give us one. So in September 2017, the venerable CTIA show is merging with the global Mobile World Congress series of trade shows to become GSMA Mobile World Congress Americas.
I know. It's a trade-show branding story. Why should you care? At their best, trade shows are an explosion of news and excitement around new technology. CES, MWC, and IFA are three tentpoles the gadget world revolves around, dumping huge numbers of new products on the market for everyone to enjoy.
That used to be the case for CTIA as well, but it hasn't been for a few years now. Starting in 2013, big new consumer announcements largely evaporated from the once-important annual show. In 2014 it rebranded as "Super Mobility Week," starring a bunch of tired exhibitors enervated from the previous week's IFA show in Berlin.
CTIA isn't dead, but it's been very quiet in recent years. The organization tells me that last year, 30,000 attendees came to visit 1,000 exhibitors. But for the past few years, there has been near-zero news coming out of the relatively low-energy show, with the venue mostly being used as a way for industry insiders and buyers to network. That's the core of any trade show, to be sure, but it's a long way from when CTIA was a must-attend event that would set the agenda for the year.
The GSMA, the organization which runs MWC, is very, very good at running trade shows. They've shepherded MWC from being a regional insiders' show into being the annual event that anyone who has anything to do with mobile phones absolutely has to be at. More than 100,000 people showed up at the last MWC in February.
Expanding to "Americas" may also help. If carriers and companies from Canada and Latin America play larger roles, that may throw more vibrancy into the event.
After a relatively calm few years of OS duopoly and market saturation, we're moving into a potentially exciting new phase of wireless. 5G is coming, and with it, there will be new markets for infrastructure, for applications, and for devices. Ideally, CTIA can help lead the way for the US there.
Initial signs are hopeful. A lack of major-carrier enthusiasm has been a big problem for CTIA the past few years, but AT&T, at least, is promising news.
"The mobile industry will be the big winner as CTIA and GSMA work together to produce the premier mobile event in the Americas," said Glenn Lurie, Chairman of the Board of CTIA and President and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Operations. "We expect it to be a showcase for new technology as well as an ideal place to do business."
Here's What Hurt CTIA
The CTIA shows' heyday in 2004-2009 happened because the US, at the time, was a relatively sealed-off mobile market. Mobile-phone growth was booming, but our devices and networks were generally incompatible with the rest of the world. So it only made sense for handset and network vendors wanting to reach 300 million Americans to come to the U.S. based show.
But then a bunch of things happened to start to converge the US with the rest of the world. With LTE and with Qualcomm's GSM/CDMA modems, handset makers started to be able to sell very similar models worldwide. Carrier equipment makers hewed to global LTE standards. App developers launched on Apple's and Google's worldwide, open platforms, rather than relying on carrier app stores as they did in the past.
Consolidation down to four major carriers also reduced CTIA's market. The CTIA shows were always driven by companies peacocking for carrier attention. In the early '00s, independent MetroPCS, Cricket, Cingular, Nextel, Alltel, Western Wireless, Cellular One, Suncom, Clearwire, and others all played much larger roles in our country than the few, shrunken regional providers do now. While we have a burgeoning virtual-carrier sector, led by Tracfone, those companies don't buy base stations and network equipment.
As a result, the two gigantic, global mobile-related shows, MWC in Barcelona in February and IFA in Berlin in September, gulped up all of CTIA's oxygen. If companies want to get in front of the big US carriers, they can set four meetings. Otherwise, their money is better spent on a world stage.
Regional trade shows are still absolutely vital in China, which is still a weird, quasi-sealed-off market with a lot of its own rules. But they've been declining in the rest of the world. It'll be very interesting to see if the global leaders can help CTIA once again become a show that sets the agenda.