Trade associations play several roles for their members. Most trade associations lobby on behalf of their members, and some associations are primarily lobbyists. Trade associations routinely file position papers with federal and state regulatory agencies on behalf of members. Other trade associations concentrate on providing services to members. Perhaps one of the most useful functions of trade associations is holding conventions and meetings so that like-minded members can talk to their peers. Most of the trade associations that you’ll find quoted in the press are national associations, but there are also numerous regional and state-level trade associations.
Many trade associations are focused on a specific industry segment. CTIA largely represents cellular companies. NTCA is largely comprised of rural ISPs. But a few trade associations are interesting because they include members that seemingly compete against each other. For example, ACA Connects has a wide-ranging membership that includes cable, telco, and fiber companies under the same umbrella. One thing is for sure – an industry newcomer needs a lineup card to keep them all straight.
Viewed from inside the industry, it’s easy to think of trade associations as powerful entities since they can speak for an entire industry segment. But it’s interesting to look at the big picture. There are over 26,000 nationwide trade associations in the country – and every industry imaginable has them.
It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of industry trade associations during my career. When I first started in the 1970s, there were not many associations. But as the industry evolved, new trade associations came to life. The newest association, APPB, was formed in 2022 to represent the interests of municipal broadband providers. Existing trade associations sometimes splinter if the association starts taking positions that not all members endorse. One of the most common disagreements within trade associations is between large members and small members – it’s common for a trade association to adopt positions that favor its largest members.
One of the best examples of this is USTelecom – The Broadband Association. This is the oldest industry trade association that was first created as the Independent Telephone Association in 1897 by a group of non-Bell telephone companies. The first members were looking for a unified voice to lobby against the power of the Bell telephone companies that were running roughshod over regulators at the time.
Over time, the association rebranded as USTA (United States Telecom Association). After the divestiture of AT&T into regional Bell companies, USTA underwent a big change when it allowed former Bell companies to join. Over a few years, a lot of smaller members of the association went elsewhere as the association started to be dominated by the large companies. When I see a USTelecom position now, I always assume it is primarily speaking for AT&T, Verizon, Lumen, and the other large telcos.
USTelecom is also a good example of how trade associations change to reflect the evolution of the industry. The association rebranded to add on the “the Broadband Association” to recognize that telephone companies have morphed primarily into broadband companies. We see the same thing happening all over the industry. When I recently looked at the website for NCTA, the association representing the largest cable companies, one of the predominant articles talks about needing more balanced policies on spectrum – because cable companies are increasingly also becoming cellular companies. Evolution in the industry is inevitable and we’re seeing unprecedented convergence between the companies in the industry and the technologies and businesses they pursue. I have to wonder how convergence will affect trade associations. For example, what will eventually happen to an association like NCTA if cable companies all migrate to fiber – similar questions loom all around the industry.