TIA looks toward 2008 growth in membership, markets, research

Grant Seiffert has been president of the Telecommunications Industry Association for about one year, since replacing now-retired, long-time president Matt Flanigan. It has been a year of broadband growth and controversy about the 700 Mhz auction, a year of growing fascination with “green” sustainability strategies, and a year during which the residual effects of industry consolidation were strongly felt. It was also the year of the first NXTcomm trade show. FierceTelecom recently spoke with Seiffert about the year that was, and what’s to come in 2008.

FierceTelecom: How has the industry changed in the last year, and how is that affecting your member companies?
Grant Seiffert: We’re looking at what happens when consolidation affects vendors. I hear about the affects of consolidation every day. It’s so important for companies to diversify their businesses because some of them are in a position where if AT&T or Verizon dials down their capex they could go out of business. Diversifying means going after new markets, after the government spending that’s happening related to the Department of Homeland Security. They don’t want to be stuck in the legacy telecom market when there are fewer customers for them there. The other thing is that these industry changes affect how much companies can spend on research. Unfortunately for our members, Wall Street doesn’t reward research. Through our member companies, we represent 1300 engineers and we have more than 70 committees working on standards for both legacy networks and new network opportunities. We continue to work with the ITU on their standards work. We would like to find a way for the government to address the pressure on technology research dollars. You’ll hear more about that in 2008.

FT: How has the changing industry landscape affect the TIA’s ability to grow membership? How has it affected NXTcomm and the events business?
GS: We’ve done a lot of soul-searching about the future of this organization and how it should evolve. We only serve the vendor community, but we want to grow the base. We’re very focused on representing our core membership and growing that pie. The industry has been stabilizing some, but it also has become more competitive. The move to IP is making it happen. There are lots of start-ups out there and international companies to reach out to. If we allowed carriers to join, our judgment would get clouded for a variety of reasons. The trade show business is a tough business to be in, but a very important business. There a lot of events out there, but NXTcomm will continue to evolve, not only to include communications companies, but entertainment interests. NXTcomm and Wayne Crawford [the show’s executive director] are doing more outreach to the content community.

FT: What excites you about the telecom industry going into 2008?
GS: There’s growth left in broadband and I think our 2008 TIA Market Review [due to publish in early 2008] will reflect that. In the coming year, we’ll continue to support broadband de-regulation. What’s next for broadband is that there will be more broadband and more of it. Consumers are now demanding it, but from a policy standpoint, we could still be doing a lot more to incent the service providers to continue to build out broadband to everyone. Something like Net neutrality would be a disincentive.

FT: Yes, we’ve seen a revival of Net neutrality recently. How far will that go?
GS: We’ve seen Net neutrality become an issue again, and I think we’ll continue to see a lot of debate about that. However, I don’t think we’ll see any action on it in an election year. In the next year, we’ll be watching where the presidential race touches our industry. It may not happen directly. Topics like Net neutrality are just buzzwords for the candidates to jump on, and I don’t think they understand them all that well.

FT: What are some of the other top issues for 2008?
GS: We’re also very excited about the 700 Mhz auction. We would like to see some new companies come into the industry and bring some new competition. A new area we’ll spend a lot of time on is the green movement. This will become more of a marketing message for our member companies in 2008. It’s not just governments driving it, but consumers, too, and it’s not something our industry can avoid, or we’ll be held accountable. Then, there’s the research issue. Next year we’ll be hearing a lot from the presidential candidates about keeping America competitive, but U.S. companies are not as competitive as they used to be. Something’s got to be done about bringing back the focus on investing in research. Foreign trade will continue to be an issue. It depends on the next presidential administration—will it be pro-trade? A lot of our member companies are interested in selling to new markets. We’re doing a lot of work right now with delegations from other countries. Social networking will again be a big issue. Companies are always concerned about Sarbaennes-Oxley. I’m always hearing about it, and a lot of companies feel that satisfying it is an unnecessary expense. Another thing we’re watching closely is how much private equity money is coming into the industry. Those firms are gobbling up companies right now. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? This private equity guys will squeeze blood out of rocks.