This week saw Australia’s telecommunications industry gather for the annual Comms Day Summit at Sydney’s Westin Hotel.
A constant in the telco industry is change and new technology – few industries have had to reinvent themselves in the same telephone companies have had to over the last 30 years.
For telcos, that period of change has been immensely profitable as the switch to mobile networks proved to be a river of gold for the industry as consumers enthusiastically moved away from fixed line networks and into lucrative products like SMS services.
Missing the passion
So it was notable how the Comms Day summit was missing a sense of excitement or vision about the approaching opportunities such as 5G networks, the Internet of Things and other new markets. Much of the conversations were mainly focused on the dysfunctional Australian industry and the flawed regulations that got it to where it is.
As an Australian event it’s not surprising that much of the focus would be on domestic failings – thirty years of misguided policy, political opportunism and schoolboy ideologies have left the nation facing the prospect of the “world’s most expensive broadband” in the words of Megaport founder Bevan Slattery – however the stasis in the telecoms sector betrays a far deeper uncertainty in the global industry.
That uncertainty was on show at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where most of the conference’s buzz was around virtual reality headsets and connected cars, areas where telecommunications providers are, at best, a ‘dumb pipe’.
We are not a utility
Being relegated to being a ‘mere utility’ is the fear of every telecommunications executive, which is why they spend so much on abortive Pay-TV, online and sports rights acquisitions. In the Australian context, Telstra’s acquisition of PacNet and Slattery’s own East Asian ventures are possibly the most interesting developments in the local industry yet they were barely mentioned at the Comms Day event.
While the Comms Day Summit told us much about the insular nature of modern Australian business – and the depressing mess three decades of poor regulation has left the local telecommunication industry – the bigger message is the global communications industry is struggling in a world of commoditised bandwidth where the opportunities to make huge profits is not immediately obvious.
It’s hard to see how telcos can be completely disrupted in the way media companies have been given how regulated their markets are – although the same was being said of the taxi industry five years ago – but it is clear their managements are struggling to find new business models.