Will Supercomm be stimulating?

Supercomm 2009 is less than one week away. The show will be held Oct. 21-23 in Chicago, and as a Chicagoan I am pleased to inform you that we are expecting a fall heat wave next week. That means temperatures in the low 60s, which sure beats the low 40s that we're experiencing right now. Also, fall colors should be near their peak in this part of the Midwest next week, though you'll have to veer from the well-trod path of Michigan Ave. to see them. Additionally, Chicago failed in its Olympic bid, and the city also has conveniently outlawed October baseball for the foreseeable future, so everyone in town will have little to talk about but Supercomm.

And what will the talk of Supercomm be? Several months back, show organizers made a bet that everyone in the telecom industry would be talking about broadband stimulus, and that the show's proximity to important dates on the stimulus award schedule would help fuel the discussion. The timing in that respect has turned out to be surprisingly accurate, as the NTIA is believed to be just weeks away from first-round stimulus awards.

However, the biggest names in telecom, the companies like AT&T, Verizon Communications and Qwest Communications, whose executives will play starring roles in next week's keynotes and general session panels, largely skipped the stimulus program. There's not much reason to expect that they will mention stimulus at all, or be eager to talk about it if asked (though U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, who has been added to Thursday's keynote slate, surely will). Even some of the rural telcos you would expect to be at the center of the stimulus discussion have taken a pass on the program's first round, and are still iffy about the next round.

What that lack of activity adds up to is a disappointed vendor community. The stimulus program indeed will be a topic of discussion at Supercomm, though I suspect a less prevalent one than many of us had hoped, and possibly a topic that gives the general tone of the proceedings a tinge of frustration.  

That's not to say there won't be plenty going on, and plenty to talk about. Net neutrality has usurped broadband stimulus as the telecom industry's hot topic (and also can largely be blamed for the stimulus program's lack of sizzle). The White House and the Federal Communications Commission are carrying the flag for the new Net neutrality policy, but Republicans are pushing back. Keynoters Ivan Seidenberg of Verizon and John Stankey of AT&T probably will spend some time on stage making their case against Net neutrality. They also likely will talk about their successes in the broadband and TV businesses, and probably not much at all about the declining significance of their voice telephony businesses (though they may happily tell you what they think of the FCC's inquiry into the business practices of Google Voice). CenturyLink's Tom Gerke will give us a glimpse at a new indie telco giant, and as usual, there are a few outliers in the keynote bunch: TiVo's Tom Rogers, who could be booed as much as cheered by a service provider crowd that he is alternately partnering with and suing; cable guy Patrick Esser of Cox Communications, who may give tips on how to succeed in the voice business; and NBC Universal's Richard Cotton, who speculation has suggested soon could be working for Comcast.

Technology-wise, there should be plenty of chatter and news about packet optical and 100G; broadband access and service-oriented architectures; green technology and smart grids; IPTV; LTE; WiMAX and social media. And, after its all over and before you have to catch your plane out of town, you should take a stroll (or cab--we won't judge) north on Dearborn St. until you reach Lincoln Park. That's where you'll find some of those fall colors, and a different kind of stimulus program. -Dan