2011: the year we cross the t's

Summary:If 2010 was the year of the battle for the NBN, 2012 will be the year in which the government's telecoms policy reviews drive the agenda. And 2011? With the NBN now in its put-up-or-shut-up phase, expect rapid action at NBN Co this year — and pressure on wireless providers and internet service providers to figure out exactly where they're headed.

With floods in Brisbane disrupting Queensland's already-struggling communications systems and the eventual clean-up set to strain financial, logistical and political resources, 2011 is already shaping up to be a year of great challenges.

There is, on the one hand, sure to be more of the same — Labor pushing the NBN ahead, Malcolm Turnbull and his like-minded contrarians burning the midnight oil trying to find ways to discredit it (many were stunned to see Turnbull foregoing New Year's Eve celebrations long enough to pen one last missive in the wake of the Alcatel-Lucent scandal).

Yet if the complex, heated debate of the past few months has taught us anything, it's this: the NBN is going ahead. The ball is rolling, and it's time to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Learn to live with it, and make the most of the opportunity it will bring over at least the next two-and-a-half years, when the Liberals could seize power and send the whole thing back to the drawing board.


The NBN ball is rolling; now the industry must figure out how it can enjoy the ride.
(Zorbing image by Bartux, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Of course, to really make that happen, they're going to have to get more creative with their anti-NBN crusade: the latest proclamation from Malcolm Turnbull suggests he's back to the same old, same old well-worn arguments.

Increasing certainty over the NBN should also help us move beyond the wireless-versus-fibre debate that strangely persisted despite the agreement of many that it's not really the debate we need to be having. Conventional wireless carriers need to dispense with the illusion that their 3G services will serve as stand-ins for fixed broadband, while WiMax carriers and emerging LTE operators will need to proactively shape customer expectations and provision networks so customers aren't let down once they go live. Such planning will need to happen under the auspices of detailed planning by the government, which needs to have a crystal-clear 3G and next-generation spectrum allocation strategy and timetable completed soon.

Charting the next generation of wireless services will be a bugbear for Stephen Conroy, who is also no doubt eager to continue working hard to spur thinking around potential uses for the NBN. Government departments are on notice and industry partnerships are already constructing the training facilities and thinktanks that will bring together NBN-minded thought leaders. I suspect there may also be some behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, which suffered a significant legal loss last year and will be working to lobby for intellectual-property protections so the NBN doesn't become the expected piracy free-for-all.

WiMax carriers and emerging LTE operators will need to proactively shape customer expectations and provision networks so customers aren't let down once they go live.

In the shorter term, Conroy can expect a hard fight when parliament resumes next month, emboldened by his Telstra-separation victory but struggling to win the grudging support of independents who are going to put up their resistance if only so they don't come across as pushovers. Turnbull will of course be there, lobbing in grenades to keep everything interesting, but he will have to revise his strategy if he's going to avoid being as irrelevant as he was last year.

He might try planting seeds of doubt in Telstra's shareholder base, although by now they're probably sick enough of the to-ing and fro-ing that they just want the company to move on, already. Motivated by spite as much as anything else, he might also work to stymie the NBN by lobbying state governments to follow Victoria's Luddite Baillieu government in opposing opt-out NBN policies that will cause agony for Telstra and, despite Mike Quigley's cool confidence, pose real challenges for NBN Co and reluctant bedfellow Telstra.

In the meantime, however, there are strong signs that 2011 will also be a year in which we can look past the do-we-or-don't-we debate about the NBN, and are reminded that there are other pressing issues in this most essential sector.

Vodafone's dismal performance over the past few months, compounded by recent revelations that its security controls have been, shall we say, less than ideal — has forced the hand of a telco that was, only months earlier, rallying the troops to beat Optus and become "two in two". Now, Vodafone — which was suffering outages even before its Queensland operations bore the brunt of the current floods — will be lucky if it can stay within spitting distance of Optus, as it rushes to avert a class-action lawsuit and invests $550 million this year to boost its network with 2500 new base stations.

How quickly they fall. Vodafone was keen to catapult itself ahead of Optus on the heels of its merger with Hutchinson, and is now set to spend 2011 on the proverbial back foot as it races to recover the damage its brand — and network — has suffered. This leaves Optus and Telstra free to innovate, as well as widen the gap between themselves and the number-three provider, creating something of a mobile duopoly that could stem the rapid decline in mobile prices. In particular, expect big gains for Telstra, which in 2010 finally learned how to price its services at a more reasonable level that has made converts out of many long-time would-be customers including yours truly.

A myriad of other issues will keep things on the boil this year: even as the digital TV switchover continues unabated, we can expect dramas around the allocation of 4G wireless spectrum and renewal of 3G licences; an explosion in IPTV-carried content services that is rapidly transforming the lounge room and pressuring internet service providers (ISPs) to offer ever-larger bandwidth plans; and some very real issues around the provision of adequate satellite-based broadband services as NBN Co starts to make good on its commitment to build its network from the outside in.

Vodafone was keen to catapult itself ahead of Optus on the heels of its merger with Hutchinson, and is now set to spend 2011 on the proverbial back foot as it races to recover the damage its brand — and network — has suffered.

And, of course, all telecommunications players will be working to improve their image after long-simmering frustrations over shoddy customer service boiled over during 2010. The ACCC's ridiculous persecution of Optus over its advertising was symptomatic of these frustrations, and Vodafone's "Vodafail" dramas haven't helped one iota. A continued failure by telcos to address very real customer service issues should keep the pressure on throughout the year, and the company that gets things right could reap a big bonanza. As ISPs like iiNet and Internode have known for years, customer loyalty simply cannot be bought. It must be earned, and kept.

Then there's the filter, which will likely linger in the background this year as the government's classification review hobbles ahead, and Conroy's massive media review takes shape. Yet if 2010 was the year of the battle for the NBN and 2012 will be the year in which the government's telecoms policy reviews drive the agenda, 2011 will be all about delivering: ramping up and legislatively empowering the NBN; whipping the wireless industry into shape; and empowering NBN Co to deliver on its mandate. There are, to borrow from Robert Frost, many miles to go before we sleep.

What are you expecting to be the biggest telecoms issues in 2011?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government : AU, Telcos, Telstra

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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