Fixed or mobile broadband? Both are booming

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You would be forgiven if you thought that mobile was the only broadband game in town these days. Analysts estimate that by the end of 2009, there were a whopping 271 million mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide, with HSPA (1.5 mbps +) accounting for 181 million of those. You could argue that many users are unaware their device has mobile broadband capabilities, or get the most of it, but this is an undeniably healthy, growing market, up 43% year on year.

However, early reports of the demise of fixed line broadband appear to be wildly off the mark. According to ABI Research, global fixed line broadband lines totalled 430 million last year, up 13% on 2008. (And In-Stat estimates that 2009 broadband subscribers reached 585 million.)

The continuing growth in fixed line broadband has been driven in large part by consumer interested in IPTV, online gaming and commercial interest in " secure access to non-building access points e.g. vehicular traffic monitoring units," says Jake Saunders, VP for Forecasting for ABI. At present, the DSL platform dominates with 65% market share; cable and fiber represented 24% and 11% in 2009. The analyst suggests that interest in FTTH, VDSL and GPONs (all technologies that make significant use of fiber) will keep nudging the capabilities of fixed-line communications beyond the capabilities of mobile broadband for some time to come, despite the expected arrival of LTE. In fact, ABI estimates that fiber will account for 134 million lines by 2015.

But perhaps its' not a question of fixed or mobile broadband. For many people, mobile broadband presents an out-of-home and out-of-office connectivity opportunity. And if they want to use their mobile broadband-enabled devices - be it an iPad, netbook or Kindle - in the home, the fixed line network will have a major role to play.

In mature markets, a lot of the growth in new lines will be in using DSL to backhaul in-building femto cells, which in turn support the growth of mobile broadband. Sales of femto cells, which one commentator expects to be close to 1.8 million units this year, are a sign that mobile macro networks are creaking under the weight of demand for mobile broadband from users switched on to the iPhone, Android and HSPA dongles, that the fixed line network must come to the rescue. The femto cell grabs mobile traffic from (registered) devices in the close proximity, and channels it through a domestic or office fixed-line broadband line back into the mobile network, relieving the load on the mobile macro cells.

Femto cells present an unquestionably nascent market, and not all mobile operators believe femtos are an answer to the capacity crunch that many of them are facing. But many more do, and are planning a mass market femto strategy. Conceivably, in 5-10 years time, almost every office and residential broadband line could have a femto hanging off it. This would be particularly useful in an office environment where channelling at-desk mobile calls through the company PBX will give not only more control and features, but also considerably reduced phone bills.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.