Assessing the year ahead in telecom

The great thing about tracking the telecom industry is that it's never boring. In my last column I highlighted just a few of the seismic shifts that occurred last year. My prediction for 2006? More of the same. A few new trends emerge, but the primary theme for next year is that existing trends intensify and gain momentum.

Crystal ball 2006 logo

Here's a glimpse into the crystal ball for 2006:

Real-time collaboration goes mainstream. Behind the scenes, major telecom players (both equipment vendors and carriers) have spent the past several years developing collaborative tools that incorporate conferencing (Web, audio and video), presence technologies such as instant messaging, and voice. Recent research demonstrates that enterprises are getting ready to take the plunge: Job titles such as "SVP of Collaborative Services" are starting to crop up, and the average per-seat price that companies are willing to pay for "real-time communications dashboards" has leapt from less than $300 to more than $400. Watch for major developments here.

Voice commoditizes. Just as non-voice communications services skyrocket in importance, voice itself declines. Large companies are paying roughly a penny per minute for voice services. Joe and Jane consumer are getting accustomed to voice that's free (or practically so) thanks to VoIP services, such as eBay/Skype and Vonage. Carriers have been girding for years for their core services to crater - all signs say 2006 is the year it happens.

Nontraditional voice players emerge as a major force. In tandem with the above trends, watch for nontraditional players, such as software companies and Web sites, to get serious about offering voice capabilities. Microsoft's stated direction is to incorporate voice into its conferencing and collaboration services. Google's getting into the network business (via wireless infrastructure, see prediction below) and eBay bought Skype. Voice providers are increasingly something other than the traditional telcos.

Telecom regulation stays stuck in the last century. Notwithstanding the above, the FCC will keep regulating like it's 1999. The FCC agenda for 2006 includes such incendiary topics as VoIP, spectrum allocation and content ownership. Though opportunity exists for significant, forward-thinking changes in the legal and regulatory framework for 21st-century communications services, based on the FCC's performance to date, it won't happen. (This is one prediction I'd love to be wrong about.)

Convergence keeps going strong. One of the biggest seismic shifts in 2005 was the across-the-board acceptance of VoIP by consumers and enterprises. That's going to continue this year. As communications services increasingly encompass unified messaging, conferencing and presence (see prediction No. 1) the technology underpinnings making all this happen is VoIP.

The wireless revolution continues. The final trend that continues unabated in 2006 is the shift toward wireless. In a marked change from a few years ago, most enterprises have a mobility policy - look for this to continue.

How reliable are these predictions? Next week's column will discuss the hit rate for last year's predictions. Stay tuned.

Crystal Ball - Previous: Bradner makes his 2006 predictions. Next: What users want.

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