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Internet use: we’re more mobile, but we still need a cable

Crikey pops the hype over the widely reported percentage growth in wireless internet use, showing we use fixed-line internet connections more than ever.

Beware of people bearing growth percentages and a love of mobile connectivity, for only half the picture will often be revealed,” wrote Chris Duckett at ZDNet, channelling my almost-identical thoughts about the spin that’ll be put on the latest internet usage figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, released yesterday. We were right.

Predictably, most news outlets have squawked about the rise in mobile data consumption. “Mobile phone data downloads rise 43% on 2012 numbers, ABS figures show” said the ABC; ”Internet downloads on mobiles in Australia surges: ABS” said StartUp Smart; and “‘Explosive growth’ in data being downloaded on phones” said the Ballina Shire Advocate and, presumably, other APN regional papers.

Now the amount of data downloaded through mobile devices has certainly risen, almost doubling over the 12 months to 30 June 2013. The amount of data downloaded through phone handsets has risen 43% in just six months.

It sounds impressive. On the surface, a standard up-and-to-the-right chart of this steady growth would seem to support the standard industry belief that more and more of our internet activity will move from fixed-line services to mobile devices, and it does.

But to imagine that any of this supports the idea that fixed-line services are somehow obsolete, and that wireless will end up supplanting it to rule the world, is to be fundamentally ignorant of the technologies, of their relative costs, of the different data usage patterns of different online activities, of physics and of arithmetic.

The fact that wireless users share the potential bandwidth with all the other users currently on that base station has been gone through so many times that it shouldn’t need to be mentioned any more, but we do, and so I have. Same for the physics of Shannon-Hartley, which sets limits on how much bandwidth can be created in the wireless spectrum. Do we really want a wireless tower in every street?

More recently, the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications in Melbourne has modelled the internet’s energy consumption. Right now, the internet uses around 1-2% of the world’s electricity. But thanks to the proliferation of millions of energy-inefficient wireless devices, that could blow out to 10% by 2025, causing us real problems.

As recently pointed out by Mark Gregory, senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University:

Universities and industry research teams around the world test technologies that typically won’t come to market for 15 to 20 years. Unless there is a sudden and unexpected break-through in wireless or copper based technologies, the only known approach to provide high-speed broadband that incorporates traffic class management and Quality of Service (QoS) relies on the use of optic fibre.”

Now there’s certainly massive growth in the number of mobile internet subscriptions. They’ve outnumbered every other kind of internet subscription for more than two years now. But we need to remember that mobile devices are generally issued on a per-person basis, whereas you typically see just one fixed-line connection per household. Indeed, we’re now seeing more than one mobile subscription per person — for one or more smartphones, plus a tablet, and perhaps also a dongle for a notebook computer or a mobile wi-fi hotspot. So of course there’s more of them than fixed-line.

The killers, though, are the cost of mobile bandwidth and the minuscule data transfer allowances. As I wrote in May, there’s simply not enough to sustain a reasonable full day’s online activity.

Using 15GB per month as an example, if for no other reason than that’s the plan I’m on, it gives you half a gigabyte per day. A mere 500MB. For everything you need to do in an entire 24-hour day. It doesn’t go far.

Watching streaming video is 200-300MB/hour. An audio-only conference call on Skype is 100MB/hour. Updating your device’s operating system can be 1GB (1000MB) or more, and really needs to be done same-day to avoid security risks. Even the background chatter of staying in touch with all your cloud-based services, from email to Facebook to Twitter to Google Maps and everything else, can add up to 100MB/day, even if you’re not really doing anything.

You can certainly use mobile services for staying in touch, but fixed-line connections can, and will, be doing the heavy lifting — even if for convenience your “last-metre connection” is by wi-fi to a fixed-line internet router nearby.

If anyone reckons differently, show them this chart from ZDNet’s Duckett, which shows quite clearly that the proportion of all data that’s coming down the wireless route is doing down, not up:

Percentage of data downloaded

As Duckett wrote:

Mobile data may be increasing at a rapid rate, but it is yet to reach one-fifth of the data downloaded on fixed lines in December 2009. By contrast, fixed-line downloads have grown by five-and-a-half times since the end of 2009. Mobile data only makes up 2.9% of all data downloaded and rose by 0.49 percentage points. It’s hardly the sort of growth that will see mobile data get anywhere near the data downloaded by fixed broadband in our lifetimes.”

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  • 1
    Geoff Russell
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    So mobile usage is growing massively … but still a tiny part of the pie. Um … now where have I heard that first claim without the second qualifier before? Oh yes, from the solar power advocates … where again high percentage growth numbers amount to very little.

  • 2
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that Malcolm Turbull seems to be backing away from that position: “LTE or 4G wireless can operate at speeds comparable to fast fixed-line broadband with the added functionality and convenience of mobility,” he said. “The significance of the wireless revolution, and its threat to fixed-line networks, is not lost on the telecommunications sector any more than it is lost on President Obama who is making 4G wireless broadband his key broadband priority. But despite the fact that every second MP and senator is now clutching an iPad, the government seems oblivious to the wireless revolution.”(Feb 11). BTW it was part of a blog which he has since deleted but the story is here: http://www.zdnet.com/telstra-4g-makes-nbn-unviable-turnbull-1339309209/

  • 3
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    More tech stories crikey, this is a great article.

  • 4
    ghostofbarry
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    You’re definitely right that there will be a gradual move to a dynamic equilibrium in the use of fixed line/laptop subscriptions. Not the avalanche that some predict.

    However it’s more useful to look at the usage patterns of people than the raw subscription stats. A very large amount of the fixed line subscription data is now being routed to mobile devices in the home, office or more public locations via wifi. So from the point of view of understanding how people are using the web, it’s better to look numbers relating to devices accessing online presences (websites, apps etc) rather than simply the pipe stats.

  • 5
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    @ghostofbarry: True enough, but if I sit on the couch and use a tablet connected via wi-fi to the router in the corner, that is all my infrastructure. All that data is still going down the ISP’s fixed pipe, and that’s what I pay for that data transfer, not data at mobile rates to a mobile telco.

    Perhaps “how people use the web” needs to be part of a discussion about devices and interfaces, and “how people pay for data transfers, and who builds the infrastructure” is a separate discussion. Layer 3 and layer 2 of the data network respectively, in fact.

  • 6
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Well I think that this whole broadband story will be one of demand and supply. As users demand more bandwidth, it will become economic to provide it. The various technologies will be designed to work together to provide the most cost-effective solution that delivers the required speed in the format that people want it.

    So discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of various channels is one for the tech-heads and will be solved as demand changes. If enough people want to talk on Skype for 10 hours a day, the bandwidth will be provided.

    But of course, this article is really a fairly obvious spruik for Labor’s fibre to the premises NBN isn’t it?

  • 7
    michelle.k
    Posted Thursday, 10 October 2013 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just cancelled my fixed line broadband connection & moved to wireless - not really by choice, my copper wire connection with Telstra was so uselessly slow & unreliable that wireless is my only real alternative until the NBN gets to my suburb.

    Wireless has increased my download speeds to 5 times what it was before, but I do have to keep a check on what I’m doing online & be mindful of my GB limits. It would be great to download movies & TV shows online, but it won’t be on the cards for me until I can get a new fixed connection or until wireless is much cheaper.

    I wonder how many of the wireless connections are used just because the old copper wire connections are so poor.

  • 8
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted Sunday, 13 October 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Geoff Russell #1

    There’s one very big difference: mobile data is hitting capacity constraints already, whereas it’s likely solar can grow another order of magnitude before we run into any significant constraints.

  • 9
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 14 October 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Aiden,

    Not I’m not a techie but…..

    I think mobile data is nowhere near hitting capacity constraints. Telcos simply need to add bandwidth to cell stations they already have. A recent example is the AFL Grand Final when they predicted a massive demand on the service at the MCG and added capacity.

    Of course those cells then connect to the network via fibre.

    Everyone has a laptop or tablet or smartphone with WIFI capability these days and wireless demand can only grow exponentially.

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