CTIA: The good, the bad and the very, very ugly

I have a confession to make: I like CTIA Wireless. A lot of my colleagues in tech media are down on the show, saying that it’s dying. They’re right in one sense. CTIA is long past its prime as a premier showcase of new devices, services and other big industry news, having been superseded by CES and Mobile World Congress earlier in the year. But I like the show just the same.

I’ve always been more of a networks and technology guy than a gadget guy, so the new device launches don’t excite me the way they do my peers. What I like about CTIA is that it brings together a bunch of smart people from interesting companies who are excited by the future of wireless networking.

At CTIA I can sit down with Kyocera(s kyo) to discuss how ceramics can transform phone audio. Then 30 minutes later I’m chatting with the original Symbian creator Psion about its new efforts in open-source hardware, followed by a conversation with startup Mesaplexx about how a tired old cell site component–the radio frequency filter–can be transformed through advanced mathematics (more on those two in a later post).

CTIA is also a great show for measuring the progress of the industry. This year, U.S. operators started discussing small cells and the heterogeneous network in earnest, dragging it out of the labs and demo booths and into the cold light of their network roadmaps. AT&T revealed it will begin rollouts of small cells later this year, but Sprint was even more aggressive, detailing specific plans to install tens of thousands of picocells in buildings and high-traffic outdoor areas in the next two years.

Those small cells will eventually be woven into operators’ macro networks and Wi-Fi networks, creating complex HetNets that allow our devices to connect to multiple nodes – in some cases simultaneously. I don’t want to oversell the concept, but this marks a true transformation in network design, moving away from network topologies focused primarily on coverage to topologies that supply enormous sums of capacity. There are still plenty of obstacles to hurdle before mall cells and HetNet will work, but the important thing is that the operators are now actively trying to overcome them – and technologies like these make CTIA Wireless truly great.

The dark side of CTIA

But there was also plenty about the show that wasn’t so great, namely the politics and the backbiting. AT&T’s very public fight with the Federal Communications Commission carried over into the conference with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski lashing back at Ma Bell’s accusations that the denial of AT&T-Mo forced AT&T to raise prices (check out Bloomberg Businessweek’s priceless sendup of the argument here.)

The operators took any opportunity they could to foretell the doom of the impending capacity crunch in order to justify their consolidation ambitions. And even some pettiness came out as their CEOs bickered onstage about whose network was fastest and what technologies truly constitute 4G.

While the issues behind those debates are important – the proper allocation of spectrum resources, the effectiveness and performance of different technologies –this was hardly the most elevated forum for discussing them. Trust me, not much was done to further the dialogue.

The problem is the carriers

The biggest problem with CTIA Wireless isn’t its placement on the calendar. Rather, it’s the carriers. CTIA is the trade and lobbying organization for the largest U.S. operators, so those carriers have always set the agenda of their show. That may have worked fine 10 years ago when the carriers were the be-all-end-all of mobile – when they controlled all services and revenue and were largely responsible for mobile innovation. But in recent years, the mobile industry has outgrown the operators.

Third-party developers, big Internet companies like Google(s goog) and Facebook and device hardware makers like Apple(s aapl) are now just as important as the operators — many would argue more important. Yet CTIA hasn’t evolved to reflect that reality. That’s why the GSM Association – which has a much broader membership and mission – has managed to turn Mobile World Congress into an event of far more importance to the overall U.S. wireless industry. It’s much more inclusive.

CTIA has tweaked the show to give it the appearance of a broader tent. This year it extended keynote slots to companies like Spotify, Mozilla and Electronic Arts, but you get the impression they were being summoned to the feet of kings. Many of the biggest mobile players in Silicon Valley don’t feel they have a place at CTIA, and some long-time CTIA loyalists have decided they no longer need the event: Microsoft(s msft), Samsung and Nokia(s nok) weren’t entirely absent, but none of them exhibited.

I’m not saying the operators have no place at their own show.  The dialogue about small cells and  the launch of new services like AT&T’s Digital Home initiative make the show far more significant than any mere gadget showcase. But the carriers need to lay off their agenda. They need to start talking with the larger mobile industry instead of talking at it. It would help if CTIA would eliminate the self-aggrandizing keynotes the carriers deliver every year.

Last year’s keynote panel of the big carrier CEOs was a big hit because AT&T had just announced its plans to acquire T-Mobile – antics ensued as CNBC’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer pressed them on the merger’s implications. But this year the session returned to its usual lackluster format: Canned questions from Cramer and contrived answers from four guys talking down to the rest of the industry. I didn’t write up the keynotes because there wasn’t any content to cover, but in case you’re wondering, here’s my (rather loose) interpretation of the affair (for a more detailed play-by-play check out Ina Fried’s live blog on AllThingsD):

  • T-Mo’s Philipp Humm: I’m the fastest!
  • AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega: No, I’m the fastest!
  • Verizon’s Dan Mead: Guess how much I can bench press?
  • Sprint’s Dan Hesse: LTE Rocks! [winks for the ladies]
  • Jim Cramer: Everyone in the Arab Spring used cellphones to text and tweet, ergo cellphones caused the Arab Spring, ergo cellphones create democracy (ignore China). Dan Hesse, how many cellphones are necessary to create democracy in North Korea?
  • Hesse: LTE Rocks! [winks for the ladies]

It’s the carriers’ party; they can cry, complain or strut if they want to. But the best parties are those where the hosts don’t make themselves the center of attention.

Blame image courtesy of Flickr user Simone Lovati