ITU - Telecom World was down but far from dead

They came, they talked and they left -- some with deals in their pockets, others with promising prospects. But will the more than 900 exhibitors and thousands of visitors who attended the Telecom World 2003 conference and exhibition in Geneva from Oct. 12 to 18 return for the next show in three years? Organizers of the event, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will need to answer that question in the months ahead.

On the positive side, many if not all of the Asian vendors will return as they see the ITU event as a door-opener to Europe. Also expect to see more software vendors attend as the telecommunication sector continues to focus on applications.

But on the negative side, don't count on a return of the major telecom equipment suppliers, the likes of Alcatel SA, Lucent Technologies Inc. and Siemens AG, or big incumbent carriers like Deutsche Telekom AG and France Telecom SA. In a break with tradition, several of the telecom sector's key players choose not to attend the 2003 show.

Interestingly, their absence wasn't sorely missed. The reason for that could be the telecom sector itself.

"The entire show over the past years was all about technology," said David Nagel, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of PalmSource Inc. and formerly president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer (CTO) of AT&T Corp. "Now the show is moving up the stack as the industry is beginning to see that applications and platforms are the way to go. The focus is clearly on companies that develop services for enterprises and consumers."

Nagel's view is shared by others in the telecom market. "This year's show, for instance, had a heavy emphasis on wireless," said Marc Patterson, vice president of the mobile workforce solutions group for Infonet Services Corp. The show "should center on mobile applications and converged wireless and fixed-line services because these are what will drive revenue for many service providers moving ahead."

So could the next Telecom World be a venue full of office-like booths where primarily software vendors and systems integrators talk shop with service providers and enterprises? Possibly. Hewlett-Packard Co. had just such a booth, where its executives met with carriers and other service providers to talk mostly about software systems and integration services in addition, of course, to the various HP hardware products designed to make everything run more smoothly. But HP wasn't alone in leasing plenty of space for decision-makers to talk: Cisco Systems Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. had lots of meeting rooms, too.

However, given that the ITU event is a global affair, don't expect everyone to follow in the footsteps of European and U.S. companies.

In fact, the biggest stands in Geneva this year and those perhaps showcasing the most equipment, including consumer products, were those of Asian companies, including Japanese heavyweights NEC Corp. and Sony Corp., as well as China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. Judging by the crowds they attracted, their booths will be as big if not bigger at the next event.

"We have a message that a lot of service providers and enterprises want to hear," said Huawei spokesman Richard Lee, speaking earlier at the show. "We are able to manufacturer equipment that is as good if not, in some cases, better than our competitors and it's available at a much lower cost."

That's surely a message received at a show held amid sustained economic gloom and financial headaches for numerous IT and telecom companies, especially mobile operators that spent billions of dollars in European bidding wars for licenses to run next-generation mobile broadband networks.

Even if ITU event attendance is squeezed by the growing number of regional shows held yearly or every two years, the conference will almost certainly happen again. And when it does (there are some rumors that ITU may be in four years instead of the announced three at last week's Telecom World), visitors will likely see and hear more of what they experienced this year: Asia, wireless, applications and service, as well as some other new trends.

After all, this is an industry that thrives on change; disruptive technologies are a driving force. But change can also be painful, as the ITU experienced this year with one of its smallest events ever.

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