Forget the drought, it's raining broadband

As Christmas roars in upon us and the Rudds, Trujillos, and Conroys of the world hang their Christmas stockings, everybody is casting an eye to 2008 and the changes it will bring.

As Christmas roars in upon us and the Rudds, Trujillos, and Conroys of the world hang their Christmas stockings, everybody is casting an eye to 2008 and the changes it will bring.

And while the government's settling-in period; the trial-by-fire that awaits Stephen Conroy as he faces the full force of Telstra's wrath; and the mooted FttN tender will keep us guessing throughout the year; special attention must go to the New Year's resolution being made by Vodafone Australia CEO Russell Hewitt.

Vodafone, it appears, will spend much of 2008 extending its 3G footprint into rural Australia, providing good-speed wireless broadband and higher-quality services to areas that, until now, have had to rely on Telstra's promise that they can get Next G coverage wherever they need it -- usually. As long as they don't need it in places Next G doesn't go yet.

Just how long it takes Vodafone to duplicate or surpass Next G's coverage remains to be seen, but it's great to see someone putting money into new mobile infrastructure again.

Hewitt's stated commitment to upgrading the telco's network is a breath of fresh air in a market that seemed to have lost its hunger for investment after shelling out hundreds of millions on 3G spectrum.

Whether because they wanted to see how demand for wireless broadband played out, or whether they were waiting to see how the political power balance would shift, or just whether they wanted to see if Next G worked for Telstra -- for whatever the reason, Optus and Vodafone have been sorely lacking when it comes to building out high-speed network infrastructure.

Or perhaps, tired of its lovey-dovey infrastructure partnership with Optus -- initially intended to save both companies the cost of duplicating each other's 3G network rollouts -- Vodafone has decided Telstra's rules are better than anybody else's. Build out your network, charge a premium for widespread broadband coverage, dodge fixed-line competition issues, rake in the profits -- in theory.

Could this be the straw that breaks the camel's back as far as fixed-line services go?

Vodafone has made no secret of its ambition to win over large numbers of customers from fixed lines onto its mobile network, and using a similar model in rural areas would seem to be a great way to justify the investment it's going to make.

Give it a year, and increasing competition between Telstra and Vodafone will inevitably see new services and lower prices -- or, at least, it should, unless Vodafone is happy to settle into a cozy duopoly on mobile broadband and fixed-equivalent services.

That's hardly the outcome anybody wants, although we can probably expect it until Optus gets around to building out its own wireless broadband network out there.

Or will Optus forego the HSDPAs of the world completely in favour of its budding WiMAX-based relationship, through Elders? This seems the more likely outcome, since Optus can hardly justify funding a WiMAX and a 3G rollout over the same territory at the same time.

By my maths, this means many parts of the bush can soon expect to be able to choose from not one but three separate wireless networks -- in addition to existing GSM services.

Rapid broadband will become readily available even in the more-remote areas that have struggled so far to get online, and VoIP-based phone services will finally provide a way around the disgrace that is Telstra's fixed bush network.

Of course, this is the ideal situation. But on the surface, it seems like Vodafone could well finally break the regional service drought with a network investment that isn't politically sensitive and can proceed without fear of litigation.

Could regional Australia's broadband worries possibly be over once and for all?

Well, I wouldn't go that far yet -- but Hewitt's New Year's resolution is the most appealing one yet.