A severe bout of market reality is expected to hit this year's TMA telecoms convention in Brighton on 21-23 October, but attendees are being promised plenty of ideas about how they can guide their IT departments through recession. This year, for the first time in recent memory, the TMA show will not take over the huge Brighton Centre: it will be housed in the nearby, rather smaller Metropole and Grand hotels - a stark illustration of how troubled the telecoms sector is.
The 1990s saw TMA's fortunes rise with the telecoms boom, and by the end of the decade visitors could look forward to meeting plenty of contacts among a 25,000-plus attendees. This year, the organisers would probably be happy to see half that number.
While the debate over how much business is generated from stand space seems to have been going on since time immemorial, it is unquestionably the case that telecoms users are no longer spending big, and instead are attempting to get more out of what they already have.
The dotcom crash has created a backlash against any technology or business service that does not make money quickly, and suppliers of telecom technologies are being hit hard.
The situation in telecoms is illustrated by the state of the third generation (3G) mobile market. This spring at Cebit, Europe's most important technology show, Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson all promised major progress this autumn when it came to operators having networks that could use their 3G phones. Nokia even put a date on it - 26 September was to be the day 3G-ready operators would be unveiled. Instead, the firm announced details of its first 3G phone that could work on both standard GSM and 3G networks, as well as GPRS networks, and which would be "trialled" on the hugely important 3G network of Sonera in Finland. Big deal.
In the UK, Hutchison recently announced it was to start trials in the UK of its fledgling 3G network using a few hundred "friendly" users; in other words, staff and a few suppliers. Users could be excused for wondering what the operators and suppliers have been trialling for the past few years, since the 3G licenses were awarded to the operators.
It is perhaps user cynicism rather than a lack of money and time that the TMA organisers - and other technology shows - have to overcome when it comes to visitor numbers. The regular big TMA conference that ran alongside the show, at which users and suppliers met to hear keynote speeches, is now no more as a result of show's organiser, the Communications Management Association (CMA), deciding that smaller, "more intimate" gatherings addressing key issues are more appropriate.
Having attended the conference myself in recent years, and have seen the rapidly dwindling attendance, the CMA should be applauded for trying something different, even though the decision has partly been forced upon it. The conference takes place over the first two days of the three-day event and is streamed through four key areas led by analyst groups and keynote speakers. The Yankee Group will lead the discussions on "mobilising the workforce", with research on mobile e-mail, sales force automation and wireless customer relationship management systems.
Giga Information Group is presenting a section on "ICT valuation, justification and prioritisation", to help attendees plan, quantify and sell IT and telecoms projects to the board. Butler Group is heading a forum on Web services which, Butler Group chairman Martin Butler says, will represent a £90bn industry by the end of this decade. It will explore the technologies, architectures and suppliers currently active in the sector, and the outlook for their adoption.
Butler Group has made the evolution of Web services a key area for its research recently, but it is realistic about the likely level of adoption in the current economic climate.
The final conference stream is being led by the Information Assurance Advisory Council and Rand Europe, and will cover "managing information risk". It will look at security and risk management as an integral part of an organisation's business processes.
CMA chief executive Glenn Powell says, "We have made significant changes to the format and content of this year's conference, and we believe this will significantly improve the value of the sessions to delegates." Powell also says it will be cheaper to attend the conference this year, as it is no longer seen as a "major profit centre" for CMA. Powell believes 100 delegates at each stream would be a good turnout.
However, those not attending the conference will still get plenty from the show, as there are various other features.
Broadband Britain and business online, billing, outsourcing, mobile technologies, security and business continuity, and Web services will be covered at special pavilions and "hot spot" areas of the exhibition, with supplier representatives giving presentations to visitors.
Visitors can expect between 130 and 150 exhibitors, including Alcatel, O2, Telewest, and Vodafone.
Explaining the move from the Brighton Centre, Powell says, "The main thing is to get people there to network. This is more important than having massive two-storey stands." The event will also provide an opportunity for the special interest groups formed by CMA members to meet; they cover areas such as billing, business continuity, and outsourcing.
There will also be the popular Comms Skills Fair, for those looking for the scarce jobs still on offer, and a chance to meet those firms that are getting ready to come out of recession.
So that's what TMA can offer over three days in Brighton, but how does the CMA see the state of the industry?
Powell says, "If we listened to the forecasters and analysts - largely the same people who stoked up the dotcom fiasco - we would believe the industry is on the verge of collapse, with an expensive infrastructure that nobody wants. There have been difficulties over the huge investment in 3G and the problems of some of corporate America's larger companies, but the CMA generally takes a more positive view.
"There is no doubt traffic is growing, as IP traffic is said to be doubling on networks every 13 weeks. Customer demand for always-on, high-speed capacity in the local loop is growing rapidly in nearly every country in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development]. In addition, there are already signs that the much-vaunted glut of fibre in the core networks will soon become a shortage."
The perceived financial instability of telecoms suppliers in light of the problems at KPNQwest, WorldCom, Global Crossing and others has led to the CMA trying to develop solutions to ensure business continuity. Powell says, "The CMA would like to see the creation of an 'at-risk' register that would allow customers to make fully informed choices about the short- and long-term viability - service and financial - of suppliers when making significant buying decisions."
Powell adds that the CMA plans to devise a best practice guide for customers on how to avoid risk.
As for the progress of Broadband Britain, with prime minister Tony Blair aiming to have the UK at the top of the e-commerce tree by 2005, Powell says the Government may have to offer subsidies to ensure the necessary networks are built. He says, "We believe that the analogue local loop will remain a bottleneck and e-commerce will not take off until it is uncorked, either by legislation or regulation.
"The aim has been to extend broadband access beyond the urban areas to the rest of the country, and to modify suppliers' business models so they can reach beyond cherry-picking the large corporations. If that takes a state subsidy, so be it. The cost can be recouped over time through increased tax revenues. Left to itself, the market won't provide it."
This view is backed up by the CMA's annual Communications Market UK survey, which drew responses from more than 400 CMA members. Of these, 78% said the Government should intervene to make universal access to broadband a reality.
Regarding the increased interest the Government is showing in electronic communications - partly driven by the "war on terrorism" - the CMA is not rabidly against this interest and is not part of the vociferous privacy lobby, but there are provisos. Powell says, "In principle, the CMA believes that it is right for government to seek lawful means to develop mechanisms for detecting security risks and crime. National security should not be negotiable and crime must not be able to flourish and prosper. However, such legislation must be proportionate to the threat, and must be carefully and effectively regulated."
On combating fraud in e-commerce and the promotion of the greater use of electronic signatures, Powell says some basic human traits first have to be overcome if the current weak encryption and e-signature market is to grow.
He says, "The problem with encryption technology is that it normally requires a specific act or series of acts on the part of the sender to encrypt a message, and the recipient must share the same technology. Both these requirements are powerful disincentives, on the human level, to use encryption as a normal mode of transmission for everyday use."
All these issues will come to the surface at TMA 2002 in Brighton and it is probably worth attending, if only to see whether the industry has genuinely taken a reality check.
What's at TMA 2002?
- TMA 2002 runs from Monday 21 October to Tuesday 22 October in Brighton
- It has four industry themes: mobilising the workforce; ICT valuation, justification and prioritisation; Web services; and managing information risk.
- There will be a skills fair, with job opportunities promised
- Technology and business "hot spot" pavilion areas will be situated across the exhibition - including areas covering business online, billing, outsourcing, contact media, mobile and Web services
- The Communications Industry Dinner (Monday 21 October), is a black-tie affair at the Grand Hotel with Ben Verwaayen, chief executive officer of BT Group, the keynote speaker
- The Gala Dinner (Tuesday 22 October) is a more informal affair with Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and team captain on Have I Got News For You?, the keynote speaker
More details on the show can be found at www.tma2002.com/
What is the CMA?
The Communications Management Association (CMA) was previously the Telecommunications Managers Association, but it changed its name a few years ago to reflect the fact its members were no longer exclusively telecoms managers, mainly because the voice and data industries are converging.
The membership is made up of individuals working for both suppliers and corporate users. Up to the 1980s, most members worked for BT, when there was barely any competition in the UK telecoms market. Privatisation of BT led to smaller competitors springing up and a more diversified membership.
The annual show in Brighton, now in its 35th year, has held onto its TMA branding despite its sponsor's name change because it is a show people know, and it would have been marketing suicide to change the name of an established show in the current economic climate.