Mobile wireless is Australia’s fastest-growing internet access technology, says the latest ABS report on internet activity. This proves that eventually no one will want fibre, right? Wrong.

In our strange new world of politicised broadband technology, optical fibre is Labor-Green waste. Wireless is Coalition rectitude. (Is that something about erecting all those phallic towers?) Without a doubt, those opposed to Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN) will cherry-pick the numbers to suit their purposes.

Here’s the numbers they’ll pick.

In June 2010, the number of mobile wireless connections rose to 3.5 million, a 21.7% increase in six months. That represents 36% of all internet connections, compared with 32% in December 2009.

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The superficial, political reading is that “people want wireless”. That the proportion of wireless connections will continue rising, until everyone is using wireless. No.

The ABS doesn’t identify overlap. It counts “connections”, not people. Someone with a fixed-wire broadband connection who now adds a mobile connection counts as two. The total number of connections rises. The proportion of wireless connections rises, even if the number of fixed connections is also rising. But the need for a fixed-line connection remains.

Since we’re counting connections, we also need to consider that fixed-line broadband connections, or fixed-wireless, are typically one per household or one per business. Mobile broadband connections are typically one per person. Maybe more than one, if there’s a laptop, an iPad and a smartphone. We will naturally end up with more.

And while speculation about people’s motivation for choosing particular broadband technologies is perhaps ill-advised, since the ABS doesn’t ask, there’s this. “The phasing out of dial-up internet connections continued with nearly 92% of internet connections now being non dial-up,” the ABS says. If people want to move beyond dial-up but can’t get ADSL or other fixed-line broadband then wireless, including satellite, is their only option.

The ABS total figure for wireless — and watch out for people blurring the number for “mobile wireless” with all wireless — includes satellite and fixed wireless too. And remember, neither the NBN nor the Coalition’s policy was ever talking about mobile wireless. Fixed wireless was their plan for areas beyond the fixed-line broadband options.

More interesting, I think, are the figures relating to speed and volume.

The number of connections delivering speeds of 512kbs or slower is dropping from 1.9 million to 1.3 million in six months. The number of faster connections is rising, especially in the 8Mbs to 24Mbs range representing ADSL2+, Telstra’s Next G network and vividwireless’ new 4G mobile network. People want faster internet. We knew that.

But it’s the volume of data downloaded that illustrates the real difference between fixed and wireless broadband.

Between them, Australia’s 4.3 million fixed-line broadband connections downloaded a total of 141,892 terabytes (TB) of data in the collection period. That’s a mean of nearly 34 gigabytes (GB) per connection. Wireless users downloaded a total of 13,330TB across 3.6 million connections. That’s 3.7GB each. Only a tenth as much.

Curiously, the total downloads via wireless broadband actually dropped, from 14,251TB six months ago. I have no explanation.

This is in line with a guesstimate tweeted by telco negotiator John Lindsay this morning: “Oz fixed line broadband uses [an aggregate of around] 400Gbps and mobile would be lucky to distribute 4Gbps. But that doesn’t make a good headline does it?”

“I could be understating mobile by a factor of 10 and still be making a valid point,” Lindsay  said.

This is also in line with how people use their internet connections. Sustained work or entertainment at their desk or living room, including long sessions of streaming or video transferring files, versus quick check-ins while on the road.

Stepping back, the figures confirm what we already know. Wireless broadband, especially mobile broadband, is certainly becoming more popular. But fixed broadband does the heavy lifting. And, thanks to physics, it always will.