Telecom status update: Cautiously optimistic

To a corporate executive, there can't be two more comforting words in the English language than "cautiously optimistic." If things turn out well, you get to have retroactive dibs on foresight, and if they turn out poorly, well, you never promised anyone a rose garden.

Perhaps that's why the phrase is used so often. Just within the last few days it described the feelings of major airlines, business leaders in Charlotte, N.C., a number of retailers, the U.N., and a high school girls basketball coach in the Philadelphia area, among many others.

Maybe it's just the time of year to feel cautiously optimistic. It's important to maintain a positive (or semi-positive) attitude around the holidays, right? Of course, after the last year or so of economic doldrums, no one wants to appear too positive or too certain that they have survived the worst.

As the year winds down, that could be how telcos are feeling about things. Verizon Communications CFO John Killian actually came right out and said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the economy is righting itself, and that Verizon is better poised for the future. He said the company has improved its efficiency and cut costs--though it had to cut jobs to get there.

AT&T hasn't used the "c" word and the "o" word together this week, but no one would be surprised if that's exactly how the company felt. It added a whopping 1 million IPTV customers within the last year to reach 2 million total, but over in its wireless division, the telco is worried about paying the price for too much wireless data and iPhone success. It's cautiously keeping the idea of usage-based pricing at arm's length, though I'll bet it's also a little optimistic about going in the direction.

Looking toward 2010, there are plenty of things that should inspire positive thinking for telcos like Verizon, AT&T and Qwest Communications. Americans appear to have an ever-growing appetite for information, which means network traffic will keep growing. Though job cuts marked 2009, telcos will enter 2010 as leaner, likely more automated organizations. They made strides this year to put their landline voice identities behind them and further their reinvention as broadband data and video providers. Other telcos also appear to be close to finally landing broadband stimulus funds.

If there's caution to be maintained, it's because of a few questions that still remain unanswered: What will happen with Net neutrality? How will a new national broadband plan affect telcos? Will the economy experience a delayed double-dip recession? Will evolution toward usage-based wireline and wireless broadband alienate customers?

Maybe "cautiously optimistic" should be the telecom industry's status update until further notice.

-Dan

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