Could the Digital Dividend make mobile broadband more popular than DSL and bridge the digital divide to boot?

France is leading the way with the repurposing of analogue TV spectrum, ensuring that mobile broadband has room to grow and, potentially, become the dominant means of internet access for the majority of the world.

As part of the Numerique 2012 vision of a digital economy, 72 Mhz of the analogue switch off will be given to mobile broadband with the goal that it will lead to universal access. (Specifically it is the 790MHz to 862 MHz band.)

France’s decision is in keeping with the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07) which agreed three bands worldwide for setting aside for mobile broadband. Basically, just about every country has agreed a time frame for turning off analogue TV and giving some of it to the mobile community. It’s known as the Digital Dividend and is good news for mobile operators and broadband users everywhere. This Digital Dividend spectrum is even better for delivering nationwide mobile broadband than the current 2100 MHz band used in Europe and Asia.

Mobile broadband to overtake DSL?

Five years ago, analysts predicted that mobile broadband would be a complement to fixed line broadband but it would never usurp it. Mobile broadband would bring roving users, whether travelling workers or students in coffee shops, internet at speeds almost as good as what they would find at home or in the office. The received wisdom was that as spectrum is a limited resource, mobile or wireless communications would lag fixed communications in speed and cost.

But that conservative view has been turned on its head. All over the world, mobile operators are offering 3G HSPA broadband at speeds and costs comparable to entry-level DSL. In the UK, for instance Orange offers mobile broadband at £15 per month (€18.50), for a 3.6 GB data allowance, and peak speeds of 1.8 Mbps. For many millions of users in developing countries, mobile broadband is the only way they can connect to the internet.

The new spectrum freed up with the analogue switchover is not just more room to cope with the current growth of mobile broadband, but the ability to deal with massive broadband fixed-to-mobile substitution. A recent report by analysts Analysys Mason predicted that by 2013, 47% of European broadband subscriptions will be mobile, and nearly a quarter of broadband offices and broadband homes will be mobile broadband only. Get that? A quarter of internet users will have discarded DSL and fibre and cable in favour of mobile broadband.

Why would they do this? Well flexibility is obvious one reason. And maybe they are not interested in IPTV or have a household broadband connection but need their own personal one.

Already many mobile operators are offering peak HSPA downloads of 7.2 Mbps, some even at 14.4 Mbps. Within touching distance is 28 Mbps, shortly followed by the introduction of HSPA Evolved next year which will give peaks of 42 Mbps. But what is tantalising is LTE, or Long Term Evolution, which is expected to be first deployed in Japan and South Korea in early 2010.

In lab trials, the GSM Association reckons that LTE is delivering 172 Mbps downstream and 50 Mbps upstream.  Undoubtedly these speeds will never be achieved on congested mobile networks in poor weather while sitting inside a concrete building miles from a cell site. But lower the frequencies, and consistent multimegabit speeds are achievable in buildings and throughout a cell. Could we see a day where IPTV is delivered to plasma screens via a mobile broadband connection? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly mobile broadband is becoming a viable technology for remote offices and branches.

Is there enough capacity for everyone?

The question is can mobile networks deliver sufficient capacity to cope with this much demand. If mobile operators can access this new spectrum band and also be allowed to “re-farm” GSM 900 MHz spectrum for 3G services too, they may be able give us all the mobile broadband we could possibly want.

Current mobile broadband operates at a higher frequency – around 2100 MHz in Europe, Asia and Africa, 1900 MHz in North America. Higher frequencies mean higher throughput, but shorter range so you need many more cell sites than you do for GSM which operates at a lower frequency (900 and 1800 MHz).  More sites mean more expensive networks, and higher prices for users.

Lower frequencies mean less power and longer range, and consequently lower costs. If 3G mobile broadband could be deployed at 790-862 MHz, it would penetrate walls better, and operators would need less cells for the coverage, which means mobile broadband can more readily move into rural areas. This is the reason why many developing countries have been advocating the use of this lower spectrum of mobile broadband. Read page 4 of this paper Booz Allen Hamilton to understand the economics of mobile broadband at lower frequencies.

So without wanting to sound like an PR for the GSM Association, mobile broadband in the lower frequency bands freed up by analogue switch off would be great for mobile operators, businesses that want a better service quality for users outside of the office, for people who don’t want to sign up to 12 month DSL contracts (students for instance) and the large swathes of the developing world where copper local loops don’t extend far. It’s a complicated story, and there is a lot of politiking involved, but interesting nonetheless.

Oh, and before you ask, WiMax has a massive role to play too, but that’s another story…..

Stewart Baines
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.