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Look for these developments as 2003 unfolds

Jan 13, 20033 mins

Yes, the past two years have been pretty awful. No, we’re not going to return to the halcyon days of 1999 anytime soon.

So what does 2003 look like? Here’s a short list of predictions. We’ll check back in 12 months and see how they’ve stood up.

1. The Bells win on unbundled network element pricing (UNE-P). In other words, the Federal Communications Commission rolls back the wholesale rates mandated for leasing facilities, letting the Bells charge their own rates (and continue to shut out competition). I’ve explained at length in other columns why this is a bad idea, but it looks like FCC Chairman Michael Powell doesn’t agree.

Corollary impact: Stock prices of telephone-company equipment vendors (the Nortels and Lucents) will spike at the news in the short term, as Wall Street rejoices at this “free market” victory. Longer term, these companies will continue with tepid growth, because even with UNE-P “relief,” nobody’s planning massive capital expenditures this year.

2. There will be at least one more high-profile bankruptcy or merger in the telecom market. Nope, the carnage isn’t over. Wait and see.

3. Spending will rebound slightly, but the devil is in the details. Neither local exchange carriers (LEC) nor interexchange carriers will invest heavily in traditional telecom gear – instead, what dollars get spent will be on packetized voice or improved operational systems software (another reason why UNE-P relief doesn’t help Nortel and Lucent as much as expected). This trend favors Cisco and other packet technology providers.

4. Voice over IP continues to make slow and steady gains in corporations. We’re seeing folks begin to reap savings because of lower moves-add-changes costs, which can average $350 per change. Some IP telephony products can reduce this cost to virtually zero, which adds up to substantial savings for companies whose employees switch offices regularly. In one scenario, a midsize organization showed a positive return on investment in less than three months.

5. Wireless continues to boom, but nobody figures out how to make money on it.

6. Both the Bells and the cable companies continue to miss the boat on the emerging home networking market.

What am I talking about? Flash poll: how many of you have home LANs? How many are hooked up to ancillary devices (my current favorite is Turtle Beach’s Audiotron, which hooks up to your LAN, plays MP3s from your PC’s hard drive, and best of all is configurable online through a Web interface). If you’re like me, you probably hooked the whole thing up yourself – but not everybody will have the time and inclination.

Now why couldn’t your trusty LEC or cable company offer a package including a cable or DSL modem, a wireless hub, an “entertainment server” such as an Audiotron or TiVo – then charge for on-site assembly and a monthly maintenance fee?

Here’s a real-world example of putting the Baby Bells’ resources – massive help desks, a fleet of trucks and techies with screwdrivers – to work offering new and innovative services. Verizon, BellSouth, Time Warner: Are you listening?