For the last couple of years, I have have averaged a couple of speaking events per week. From keynotes in front of sprawling crowds, to intimate gatherings in Spanish with recent immigrant families, I have the continually exciting privilege of speaking to an intriguingly diverse realm of audiences.
When the format calls for me to give a speech, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to deliver a compelling and entertaining address. After all, whatever I impart has to be more valuable to these folks than the aggregate value of an hour of each of them dealing with their inbox, replying to voicemails, being with their families, etc. I humbly try my best to rise to the occasion and hope that I can share something provocative and memorable each time I take the stage. The feedback so far has been very encouraging, and I have enjoyed the many chances I get to continue my learning in this area.
That said, when the agenda instead involves a panel discussion, the flow of the dialogue, and thus, the value to the audience are much less within my exclusive reach. I nevertheless strive to inject insight (on the rare occasion I have some), humor, and hopefully some potentially controversial nugget to keep the discussion lively. However, in the majority of my experiences, moderators usually have a pre-ordained conversational flow, and tend to the type of professional courtesy that cautiously avoids areas of uncomfortable questions. The result? Audiences snooze.
One factor that increases the likelihood of boring and valueless panel discussions is the increasing homogeneity of the panelists themselves. Over the last couple of years, the events to which I have been invited have increasingly staged me alongside an assortment of characters who, for the most part, share my views and core beliefs. You want to talk about municipal WiFi? Chances are that I, EarthLink, a forward-thinking city CTO, and Tropos are not going to disagree on much. Moreover, in an upstart space, even so-called "competitors" like MetroFi or Silicon Valley Metro Connect (IBM/Cisco/Seakay/Azulstar) are usually only going to have good things to say as we all aim to portray the industry in a positive light and there is more than enough opportunity for everyone involved.
Instead, if you want to keep your audience engaged, put me on the same stage with the folks who run the businesses that are widely perceived as competitive to municipal WiFi. Bring the licensed spectrum wireless carriers. Invite the incumbent fixed line ISPs. Apply medium heat and gently stir the pot.
I was on a panel at a GE event in the Spring of 2005 that featured Roger Gurnani, then the CIO of Verizon Wireless, Richard Alden, then CEO of Ono, the Spanish cable operator, and Brandon Burgess, then EVP of Digital Strategy at NBC/Universal. Skillfully moderated by Blair Levin, soon enough, off came the gloves.
The audience delighted in Roger's unbridled skepticism and disdain for WiFi when compared to his soon-to-launch EV-DO network. Richard asked rhetorically why he should allow a Skype call across his network if he is offering a competing VoIP service on that same pipe. Brandon publicly cast a wary eye on Google and questioned our ability and willingness to be a valuable partner to a traditional media company. Meaty issues were being tackled and there was some palpable tension in the air. It was a fantastic and genuine debate for the audience. We all learned something. Frankly, I think it brought everyone on the panel closer together as well. (We at Google soon went on to launch a partnership with NBC Olympics that was conceived at that very event.)
It is in that light that I was reviewing the agenda for a conference where I am participating on a panel on November 6th. Rutberg & Co. is hosting its annual Wireless Influencers event and the cast of characters scheduled to attend is first rate. That said, I must admit, I was less excited to see how some of the panels were composed. For instance, these two chats are happening side by side at the same time on Monday (click here for full agenda):
Will unlicensed services make money or undermine broadband economics?
Description: discussion among wireless carriers, municipalities, and hotspot service providers on the business models and implications of unlicensed WiFi or WiMAX services.
Jeffrey Belk, Senior Vice President, Strategy and Market Development, QUALCOMM
Donald Berryman, EVP, and President, Municipal Networks, EarthLink
Chris Sacca, Head, Special Initiatives, Google
Chris Vein, Executive Director, Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, City of San Francisco
Facilitator: Greg Richardson, Founder and Managing Partner, Civitium
Should wireless carriers allow, offer, control, or block IP and off-deck services?
Description: discussion among wireless carriers, content providers, and Internet companies on the strategies, business models, and risks of direct-to-consumer services, including implications to carriers' bucket data plans.
Chris Burke, Former Chief Technology Officer, Vodafone UK
Stephen Bye, Vice President, Wireless, Cox Communications
Roger Gurnani, President-West Area, Verizon Wireless
Jeff Treuhaft, Senior Vice President, Broadband Content Services, VeriSign
Facilitator: Mark Desautels, Vice President, CTIA
Thus, Roger is in the room next door while a bunch of us with generally aligned interests will be musing about how municipal WiFi might impact the economics of his EVDO service. Sure, the QUALCOMM guy would love the see the world eschew unlicensed spectrum and embrace his chipsets, but he ultimately stands to benefit from a diversity of network alternatives that necessitate multi-radio devices. Earlier in the day, at the same conference, audiences will hear from the CTO of AT&T, John Stankey. Why not also bring him to the stage and we can trade views on how these networks will impact residential fixed line business?
Similarly, for the panel in the next room, why not put a rep from Google, Yahoo, NewsCorp or fellow event speaker Suzan DelBene from Microsoft on the stage with all those operators to ally with VeriSign and explore the factors that keep wonderful programs like Google Mobile Maps (yes, I am biased, but it is truly an awesome app) from being widely distributed by the carriers. For good measure, bring someone sharp on the device side like Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Motorola, and ask the panel to dive into the the factors that led to the ROKR phone not being able to download music directly over the carriers' networks. That would kick it up a notch and I am certain we would all come away a touch smarter having heard from such contrasting perspectives.
All told, I am certain there will be no shortage of things to talk about, and I am looking forward to the conference. I appreciate Rutberg for gathering an exciting crew, and am always thankful for events with no press as I think it improves everyone's transparency and willingness to yap. Yet, as a guy who can never walk away from a challenging discussion, I just can't help but consider the opportunities for compelling interaction that may be missed.