Mobile industry moves ahead, but mobile trade show backslides

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Ten years ago this week, I went to what was then the CTIA MobileCon show in San Francisco for the first time, and began this blog. My first post was about an app that turned a smart phone into a mobile hotspot – an unremarkable standard feature now, but back then it was controversial.

Carriers – particularly AT&T, which had an early lock on the iPhone market – were dead set against it. Networks were a mix of 2G and 3G technology, and capacity was severely constrained, compared to today’s 4G infrastructure. It was also a business model issue. Carriers wanted to capture as much of the revenue that came from content, services and apps that flowed through their networks. They were as motivated to fight tethering apps then, as they are to fight network neutrality now.

The show has changed, too. In 2008, CTIA ran two shows a year: the big spring equipment show, usually in Las Vegas, and a fall event, called MobileCon, that focused on apps, content and technology. As the industry changed, though, the center of gravity shifted to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and the two CTIA shows collapsed into a much diminished, single conference in the fall. The final CTIA show, in Las Vegas in 2016, was a shadow of its former self.

Then CTIA partnered with MWC, to create MWC Americas. Its maiden voyage in San Francisco last year seemed to be a hit. The exhibits and conference sessions reflected a hemispheric audience: there was much to learn about mobile telecoms in Latin America, and the U.S.-style smarmy keynotes and meaningless powerpoint presentations were largely replaced by execs with something interesting to say.

This year’s show in Los Angeles was a step backwards. The show’s focus was almost completely on U.S. carriers and regulators (and the universal message was get the lead out). None of the panels or keynotes I attended had a single speaker from Latin America. Policy discussions were Beltway echo chambers. Even the so-called “International Perspectives on Spectrum and 5G” panel consisted of an FCC bureaucrat and two corporate lobbyists from Washington, D.C.

Next year’s show will also take place in L.A., but it’ll happen in late October. The hope is that it’ll be better timed for a lively event. I hope so too.