Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Telecommunications and IT Trends for 2007

The telecommunications industry, once knocked down and kicked for falling, bounced back this year and is poised to regain its role as a key enabler of the information society. That's information in the very broad sense, including voice and video as well as data. Here are some trends that emerged or accelerated in 2006 and should pick up even more steam in 2007.

The Internet is now a utility, just like electricity, gas, oil and highways. That old saw about "information superhighway" includes streets, boulevards, country lanes, dirt trails, alleys. You can still get along without it, but why would you? It's the library, phone book, department store, auction house, map, fix-it guide, newspaper, and magazine. It's not far from being the telephone, radio and television too.

All of these resources are so compelling online that Internet dead zones are a real inconvenience. That's why most people have or want broadband. It's also why cities have run out of patience expecting incumbent utilities, such as the telephone and cable companies, to take on the wireless access utility role and are doing it themselves. WiFi is really a stopgap solution. It takes too much infrastructure to scale it from a coffee shop service to a municipal utility. WiMAX is better suited to this role and will start to appear in 2007, although it will take years to build-out to its potential. By the time it does, WiMAX may be the new dial-up.

If that sounds shocking or cruel, it's only because the nature of broadband and the Internet are about to make another step-change. Dial-up 56K Internet service was fine for textual email and small file transfers, but couldn't keep up with the demands of interactive e-commerce, software and music downloads, graphic intensive Web browsing, and online gaming. DSL and Cable Internet meet that need smartly with bandwidths of a few Mbps or so. WiFi hotspots provide the same level of connectivity for travelers and mobile workers.

Low Mbps wireless broadband is also just the right size to enable streaming audio and video to mobile devices, particularly cell phones. Sprint and Verizon are in a competitive mad dash to build out the EVDO Rev A networks to claim this territory, including both consumers and professionals using smartphones and notebook aircards.

WiMAX will expand on services of this nature, but with single tower ranges that can blanket rural areas and penetrate into homes and businesses. WiMAX is also being targeted to infrastructure applications such as cellular backhaul, where it may replace current landline services. WiMAX, WiFi, and EVDO are likely to fill the need for portable and mobile Internet applications as we know them now. But, the real action is going to be in applications that demand an order of magnitude improvement in bandwidth. That's in the 10 to 100 Mbps range.

There only one compelling consumer application crying for this much bandwidth. Video. Both streaming video and video on demand are about to explode in popularity. Desktop videoconferencing and downloadable video clips can get by with fractional Mbps bandwidth. Broadcast quality full motion standard and high definition video needs a lot more. Over the air HDTV takes about 20 Mbps compressed. That's likely to be the gold standard for what most people will accept on their large LCD and Plasma TV sets. The major broadcast networks have recently started offering online viewing of some of their recent primetime shows for viewers who missed the original airings. Once this catches on in a big way, it's going to open the floodgates to video on the Web versus over the air or via satellite or cable.

This nascent market is the long heralded IPTV or IP television. If you think this is something that will appeal to only to early adopters who use their computers as video displays, just have a look at the panic ensuing among the incumbent carriers. Verizon is trenching fiber to the home as fast as it can get approvals. AT&T retains a death grip on copper to the home, their legacy asset. But they do realize that DSL from the COs won't let them play in the IPTV space, so they're compromising on fiber to the neighborhood and then high speed DSL to the residence. Verizon just bumped up its maximum connection speed for consumers from 30 to 50 Mbps. Does anyone need that for Google searches? Hardly. They're laying the groundwork for IPTV in a big way.

The final piece needed to complete the IPTV puzzle is an Internet appliance for the set top. Only the savvy few will download and burn DVDs or haul their PC to the living room. When the IP version of the satellite receiver becomes readily available with enough buffering to ensure smooth viewing and HDTV resolution, plus an easy to use on-screen guide to video available on the Net, IPTV will be truly enabled. Maybe that's next year or a few years away. Whenever it comes, every broadcast program entity and a plethora of startups will be uploading their content to the Internet on a scale that rivals Web site creation.

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