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Telephone execs invade Geneva

More than 80,000 telephone executives are set for the mammoth ITU Telecom World 2003 show, hoping their industry is finally undergoing a long-awaited turnaround.

More than 80,000 telephone executives are expected to gather in Geneva this week for the mammoth ITU Telecom World 2003 show, hoping their industry is finally undergoing a long-awaited turnaround.

John Wilcox, Microsoft director of communications, said the optimism results from both improving overall economic conditions and the new way in which telephone companies do business. Carriers don't just sell voice calls anymore, as they did the last time the International Telecommunication Union held its quadrennial show. Now they've branched out into broadband and video-on-demand and are in Geneva looking for even more revenue-generating services to offer, he said.

"This dramatic shift in the way they do business is helping to bring the market back," Wilcox said.

Many other executives planning to attend say positive economic signs for the telephone industry began surfacing in August,

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after Cisco Systems Chief Executive John Chambers disclosed a surge in Cisco telephone and networking equipment orders.

Chambers' ensuing optimism about an overall recovery was backed up by other telephone network equipment makers disclosing their most substantial numbers for equipment orders in years, and by cell phone service providers reporting surprisingly large new customer additions. There have also been new dialing technologies like VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) showing signs of advancing beyond geek chic and into the mainstream.

But it'll be a more timid lot gathering in Geneva this week than in 1999, the height of the Internet craze, when companies spent $25 million to build five-story booths on the show floor, complete with elevators. The toll from four brutal years will be reflected during the weeklong confab. Attendance is expected to be about one-third of events past, and, as Intel Executive Vice President Sean Maloney put it, "we'll be seeing a lot less $25 million booths, I'm sure."

Companies attending the event represent every corner of the communications industry, from Microsoft's smart phone to new developments in wireless networking using ultrawideband technology.

VoIP, cell phone downloads take center stage
Two technologies expected to take center stage this week are Internet phone dialing, otherwise known as VoIP, and downloadable software for wireless devices, a pair of older technologies experiencing their own recent renaissance.

For example, VoIP provider Net2Phone will announce its first product from a partnership with satellite constellation owner Hughes Electronics. The companies have created a way to bring both broadband and telephone services to areas that copper and fiber networks have yet to reach, said Bryan Wiener, Net2Phone president of global services.

Hughes' satellite network will beam broadband to businesses, which will then use equipment from Net2Phone to create a telephone service that uses the Internet rather than a telephone company's private network, Wiener said. The new service is targeted at carriers in Africa, which are considered to lag carriers on any other continent in terms of both phone and broadband deployment.

"VoIP is one of the major themes this year, it's a hot topic," Wiener said. Its prominence at the show is an indication of the importance Internet phone dialing has acquired in the telephone industry since the last ITU gathering.

Downloadable software for cell phones is also expected to grab much of the attention in Geneva because its just now turning into the multibillion-dollar industry it was predicted to be by 2000.

Sun Microsystems Vice President Alan Brenner said the latest sales figures from wireless carriers suggest that downloads have evolved into a $3 billion business for European carriers alone. In the United States the market lags, but carriers such as Sprint PCS are beginning to report downloads in the millions, he said.

"This market worldwide is in the tens of billions right now," Brenner said. "That's a very significant number."

At the show, Sun is expected to announce a deal to supply cell phone service provider China Unicom with a download service using Sun's Java2 Micro Edition, a cell phone-size version of its Java download software.

Another major theme will be products that let carriers more rapidly launch new services. Competition is forcing carriers to offer new dialing deals or applications every few weeks, a pace the telephone industry isn't quite prepared for yet, said David Orain, Sun Microsystems telephone industry business manager.

"It's part of the natural evolution," Orain said. "Operators are now pushed to offer new services on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis."

Carriers will have a crush of new time- and money-saving products to choose from. For instance, Motorola expects to unveil hardware that carriers can use to tie together various elements of their networks, from billing systems to the hardware and software used to turn on new phone accounts, said Eduardo Conrado, Motorola senior director of systems marketing.

Motorola is also unveiling the first products from its purchase of Winphoria Networks, a maker of software-based switches that are smaller and easier to install than what carriers usually rely on when expanding into new services.