My Telecom Predictions for 2021

It’s that time of the year for me to get out the crystal ball and peer into 2021.

The FCC Will Have Egg on its Face from the RDOF Grants. The reverse auction was a disaster in many ways with a lot of the money going to companies that can’t possibly do what they promised or companies that largely intend to make a profit by pocketing a lot of the grants. The FCC will have a chance to rectify some of the problems during the review of the long forms – but my bet is that they won’t disqualify many bidders. If the FCC doesn’t reject bad awards, it’s going to be in the headlines for years when rural America figures out that they’ve been cheated out of good broadband. At a minimum this is going to bring a close examination of whether reverse auctions are a good way to help rural broadband – because this auction was a disaster.

The FCC Will take a Path to  . . . It’s impossible to guess what the FCC will do until we know the results of the Georgia Senate races – and predicting that is beyond my pay grade. If the Democrats prevail in both races, then I predict that the new FCC will start the process of trying to bring back broadband regulation and net neutrality. But even then, I don’t expect much progress on the effort for most of 2021 – the regulatory process is slow and there will inevitably be lawsuits challenging any decisions. If the Republicans win one or both Senate seats, then we’re likely to see regulatory deadlock at the FCC for much, or even all of 2021. If there is deadlock, then very little will get done and even routine matters might get bogged down in partisan politics.

The Pandemic Will Continue to Slow Down the Industry. Even with a vaccine finally hitting the market, the first six months of 2021 will continue under pandemic restrictions. Towards the end of next year things will start feeling normal again, although we may never return to the old normal. Expect a lot more Zoom visits in place of in-person meetings. It’s still going to be a rough year for trying to hold live conventions.

Technician Shortage Becomes Noticeable. The baby boomer technicians are retiring in droves, which is already causing a shortage of the most experienced technicians for the next few years. We’ll eventually fill the shortage with new technicians, but telecom companies are going to struggle to hire and retain technicians until we’re able to close the gap.

Verizon will Join AT&T in Abandoning DSL. The big telcos are finally acknowledging that copper networks are dying and will step pretending to continue to patch up dying copper. This will mean that cities where the big telcos aren’t building fiber will become a true cable monopoly.

There will be Big Increases in Broadband Rates. Most cable companies have already announced higher broadband rates for 2021. But the biggest increase in rates will come quietly. Big ISPs will start vigorously enforcing data caps. Big ISPs will stop offering as many ‘special’ prices for new customers and a larger percentage of customers will pay the list price for broadband.

5G Hype Will Continue. We will still not see any major 5G features introduced in 2021, so 5G will continue to be 4G delivered on new spectrum. But the cellular company hype will convince enough of the public that there is something special about 5G that they’ll continue to buy 5G phones.

Web Video Meetings Will Improve. Software companies will improve the software for video platforms and will make it even easier and safer to conduct video meetings. Video software is also going to start being embedded in a lot of the software we use every day. This means that video meeting traffic volumes will grow even after the end of the pandemic.

Robocallers Won’t be Deterred by the FCC Fixes. The companies that make a living with robocalls will find ways around the Shaken / Stir process and the industry is probably a few improvements away from fixing the problem.

Hacking by Foreign Governments is Going to Shake the Security Industry. For the last few years, the security industry was mostly ahead of hackers, but security is a back-and-forth battle and bad actors like foreign governments are going to take the upper hand for a while. Large corporations, government entities, and telecom companies are going to be running scared for much of the year. And like always, they’ll regain the upper hand again and the cycle will repeat.

Cellular Networks Will Continue to Degrade. The use of cellular data is currently doubling every two years, which is greatly stressing cellular network quality. The cellular carriers need to implement massive numbers of small cells, add new spectrum, and fully implement 5G to keep up with the growing demand. Since those solutions take years to implement, cellular network quality will continue to degrade in many places during 2021.

The FCC Maps Aren’t Going to Get Better. We’ve been talking about this issue for years, but we’re not going to see better maps in 2021.

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