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Will 13 be lucky for 4G, NBN, and Labor?

With a 4G auction looming, 3G congestion nipping at its heels, the NBN in put-up-or-shut-up mode, and an election on its way, 2013 is certain to be a thrill a minute. But as analog TV gear stares at its future in the pit of obsolescence, can Labor avoid the same?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Amidst all the summer fun in the sun, every new year at Chez Full Duplex the stage is set for the most challenging game of sorts, which I will call Forced Obsolescence.

Out with the old, in with the new — but will analog TV be the only thing shown the door this year?(Credit: David Braue/ZDNet)

The rules go like this: in sorting through the accumulations of the past year or ten, my better half will grab anything with a glossy surface, USB port, or wire hanging off of it — and then dangle it in the air. I then have approximately 10 seconds to come up with a reason for why it needs to be kept.

Well into this year's round — in which I was struggling to come up with feasible reasons to keep RS-232 cables and 8MB USB sticks — an old Pioneer DVR-630H DVD recorder, still in its box, saw the light of day for the first time since it was successfully spared (read: hidden) in last year's game.

This isn't your mod-cons DVD recorder, mind you. It was purchased in 2005, back when digital TV was still very much a novelty and it was perfectly acceptable to charge $1099 for a product that could only record analog TV broadcasts onto its hard drive or blank DVDs.

This unit's analog-only design means that less than 12 months from now, when the government shuts off Australia's last analog TV signal, it will literally become functionally obsolete. It will no longer do anything more than play DVDs, which itself has become a rapidly-fading activity thanks to the explosion of on-demand video. It is, in other words, an ex-DVD recorder.

I realised that not even the most far-fetched excuse was going to save this one, and I may or may not have shed the slightest tear as I farewelled the analog era early by putting the unit out with the last uneaten Christmas cakes.

Analog TV isn't the only thing that will look ever more frayed around the edges this year. After a flurry of late-year activity saw Stephen Conroy intervening to shore up the revenues from April's 4G spectrum auction — something that I've argued will end badly for a number of reasons — the future of 3G is certain to be a talking point this year.

Yes, 3G. If the 4G auction falls flat, as sabre-rattling by Vodafone Hutchison Australia and Optus suggests it might, those hoping for a smooth transition to 700MHz-based 4G services will be horribly frustrated. Existing 3G networks are already strained to breaking point in many areas, and despite all the hype, Telstra's 4G services are proving far from up to the task in many others. Customers, who have been notably complaining less about their carriers of late, just want a service that works; further delays to the process of making that happen will cause major issues this year.

Because of the NBN's size, expect the Coalition to single it out to voters as a classic example of Labor waste ...

Also dominating the telecoms space in 2013 will be, of course, the National Broadband Network (NBN). The network finished 2012 having built its momentum (although, some might argue just how much momentum), but still has quite a mountain to climb if it's ever going to stop being the butt of the Coalition's jokes.

NBN Co has to also manage an ever-broadening rollout that is complicated by whatever they find in Telstra's ducts; the intransigence of local councils over wireless antenna placement and other building issues; two-faced Liberal state governments that are unlikely to do Labor's NBN any favours; and the very real questions around whether the company can get enough skilled staff, quickly enough, to make it all happen.

Either way, one hopes that we can move the debate beyond the silly shell game we've seen to date: by distracting the mainstream media with a steady stream of curiously fact-flexible arguments. The Coalition has certainly managed to keep its incredibly vague FttN proposition in the limelight, even as Labor's NBN proceeds in fits and starts.

Those fits and starts will certainly play hard in the upcoming election, which, if run in the third quarter as many expect, is certain to see the NBN under the microscope as Tony Abbott strains to find a more literate way of objecting to Labor's plan to modernise the country's telecommunications infrastructure.

While his history of technological buffoonery suggests that he may struggle on this count, Malcolm Turnbull is certain to be hitting the electorate (and the media) in full force, continuing his duck-and-weave campaign against those who would happily consider the merits of his counter-proposal if he would just substantiate them.

Because of the NBN's size, expect the Coalition to single it out to voters as a classic example of Labor waste, even as it tries to find a palatable way to tell those voters that it will give them a less technically capable solution. Perhaps they can hire some of the marketing types who tried to push New Coke into the world by telling them it was better than the old stuff.

However it shapes up, this year's revolution will most certainly be televised.

Yet, if it just continues its time-honoured task of turning the NBN into a whipping-boy, the pressure on the Coalition to justify its FttN policy will increase tremendously. If Turnbull cannot provide realistic costing of a policy, which is likely to be far more expensive than he believes after all, how can the country then vote for it — and him — in good conscience? Will the Australian public really buy Abbott's "white elephant" claims, only to have it replaced with an older, greyer, slower pachyderm that's nearly as expensive to feed, but can't even be taught to spray water on the audience?

Thankfully, the debate this year will unfold free from the shackles of lemons like Conroy's filter policy, which he mercifully euthanised late in the year during his own policy-focused game of Forced Obsolescence. Labor simply cannot afford unpalatable distractions like that in such a crucial election year.

These cleared decks give Conroy full energy to focus on shaping a clear direction for 4G, magicking the NBN into existence, and hoping that 13 proves to be as lucky a number for Labor as 10. If so, the NBN's future will be secure; if not, and Abbott gets his way, we will be up for a change in direction the likes of which has not been seen since New Coke. And, I might suggest, only slightly more popular.

The Mayans never would have expected us to reach 2013 — talk about forced obsolescence — but we are here, and it's certain to be a pivotal year in telecommunications. However it shapes up, this year's revolution will most certainly be televised. But if you hope to catch it on your old analog gear, the clock is ticking. The gears are in motion, and the future awaits.

What are you expecting in 2013? Can Conroy convince 4G carriers to pony up for spectrum? Will the NBN start hitting its targets like it needs to? Will Turnbull ever cost his FttN plan? And, as the last analog TV shuts off, will an election defeat have made Labor, too, functionally obsolete?

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