It has been a busy year in telecoms, whether because of the increasingly bitter relationship between Telstra and the government; the awarding of the contentious but (finally) progressive broadband contract to OPEL; the pivotal election that led to a change of government; or the move of 3G mobile technology into the mainstream at last.
Both through Telstra's constant promotion of its Next G network and the increasingly generous data-only plans from every major carrier, 3G's steady push into the mass market was the most significant change in the industry over the past year. This is not only because of the improved speed it provides over earlier GPRS technologies, but because it has proved that IP packet-based wireless services may really change the way people use mobile phones -- and other devices.
However you look at it, 2008 is going to be an interesting year. As it's the end of the year and you're probably on your way to some Christmas party before jetting off to Tahiti for some well-deserved R&R, I won't keep you here with a complex treatise about some issue or another; there's plenty of time for that when we all get back on the job in a few weeks.
Rather, in the time-honoured tradition of pundits everywhere, I thought I would present my list of big predictions for 2008. If I'm right, next year could be an extraordinarily important year in the evolution of Australia's telecommunications infrastructure. And if I'm wrong, well, I'm sure there will be lots to talk about anyway.
iBurst will be bought out. It was revolutionary for its time, but the company is facing the challenge of economies of scale. Like the recently bought out Unwired, its limited networks can't match the coverage of major telcos' HSDPA services, its price models and lack of cross-subsidy won't let it compete on price, and it's only a matter of time before it's subsumed. Not even iBurst's reseller-based model will save it from having competitors pick through its bones.
WiMax will gain ground. Love it or hate it, WiMax has become a key strategy forward for carriers around the world looking to circumvent poorly performing or tightly controlled local loops. With OPEL swinging into full gear and third parties like Big Air (a logical purchaser of iBurst, by the way) likely to keep pushing into the market, customers in poorly serviced areas will tentatively experiment with WiMax. And while it will likely have some hiccups, the realisation that it's still better than HSDPA should bring it closer to mainstream acceptance by year's end.
Telstra will argue with the government. And the sky is blue, and water is wet. After years of confrontation it would be more newsworthy if they were to get along, but despite the change of government I don't see much changing from Telstra's point of view. The controversial CDMA shut-off, continued delays in ADSL2+ rollouts, and the inevitable stand-off with the new Labor government -- which needs to follow through on its promises to get tough on Telstra or risk losing credibility -- should all give us lots to talk about.
Telstra won't be separated. It has been obvious to observers for years that the best solution to Australia's top-heavy telecoms market has been to break up Telstra's network and retail operations, but actually making it happen is another thing entirely. Broadband Minister Senator Conroy has pledged to pursue the idea, but count on Telstra to try every trick in the book to prevent it from happening.
The iPhone's launch will usher in a new era of world peace. That's because, with the launch of the iPhone in Australia and other countries next year, everyone will be too busy playing with their new phones to be bothered with conflict. Of course, delays in its local launch have given competitors time to ready their counterstrikes, but the iPhone will be a hit -- especially if it's launched in a 3G version that brings Apple out of the Stone Age.
Nobody will notice VoIP consolidation. Despite its lower prices, VoIP has yet to change the world at the retail level. Although the technology works, erratic ADSL2+ services and buyer apathy have limited its broad deployment. Smaller VoIP players will need to join forces to cut infrastructure costs, piggyback on mobile service offerings, get bought by ISPs looking to round out their portfolios, and to collectively generate the kind of buzz that moves mountains -- or risk being sidelined forever.
FTTN: from speculation to chaos. Now that Labor's in office, Senator Conroy will be obligated to deliver on his repeated promises to run fibre to your street. Just don't waste time looking out for the rollout truck; despite assertions that the contract will issue towards mid-year, expect the usual delays and legal challenges, especially if chronically petulant Telstra doesn't get the deal.
Progress delays broadband again.. Even as carriers are working to get ADSL2+ rolled out in exchanges around the country, the world's telecoms boffins are releasing another reason for us to feel left behind; VDSL2. A progression from ADSL2+, VDSL2 promises speeds of up to 100Mbps as long as you're within 1.6km of the exchange. ISP EFTel is reportedly planning a 70-exchange rollout, but companies that have already invested heavily in ADSL2+ will be hard-pressed to rip that gear out and start all over again. Chalk up another one for progress.
And chalk up another one for time. However it shapes up, 2008 is certain to be an interesting year. With real alternatives to Telstra starting to emerge -- even in the 3G space, where Optus and Vodafone will roll out Next G killers over the next year -- the market could get some well-needed momentum.
But first, some well-needed rest. Here's wishing you and yours all the best for the holiday season and the New Year.