A few years ago, the analysts said that while 3G could deliver broadband speeds, it would never really replace fixed-line broadband. They said the same thing when HSPA first emerged. Now they predict that mobile broadband is unstoppable.
Operators and vendors have been ignoring the received wisdom that because spectrum is a scarce resource, mobile broadband could never compete toe-to-toe with fixed-line broadband, the capacity of the latter limited only by the physics of a copper or fibre cable. It is indeed true that fixed-line broadband speeds would always outstrip those of the mobile variety. But when people value convenience, flexibility and cost more than raw speed and the value-added extras like IPTV, mobile broadband has a chance.
Pyramid Research estimates that there will be 116 million European mobile broadband users in 2014, up from 24 million in 2008. So this is about a quarter of Europeans expected to have a personal broadband connection (as opposed to a home/office connection which may be shared with others).
As Analysys points out, in many European markets, HSPA mobile broadband subscriptions are comparable to entry-level DSL but with faster speeds and larger bandwidth bundles. Dongles and cards cost little more than a DSL modem, and many handsets have the ability to be tethered (i.e. used as a modem for laptop). For buyers of new laptops, many now have HSPA modems built in. Put all these together, and the barriers to uptake have been dug five feet underground.
"HSPA+ technology now offers speed and quality of service comparable to that of entry-level DSL offers and is largely satisfactory for the majority of uses from an end-user perspective. Most of the growth of the mobile broadband market is among PC users with USB dongles or PCMCIA cards, and is both incremental and substitutional to existing fixed broadband use," writes Bertrand Grau, Analysis. Grau points out that in Sweden there was a 4.4% decline in the number of fixed broadband connections during the first half of 2008.
Analysys' prediction is below:
So is it just a European phenomenon? Hardly - globally, Pyramid expects fixed broadband to grow at a CAGR of 9% between 2008- 2014, whereas mobile broadband will grow about three times as fast, totalling $69 billion by 2014 - 30% the size of fixed broadband.
"In lower-income markets, prepaid plans open the door to mobile broadband for those who do not have access to broadband-capable fixed infrastructure and cannot commit to lengthy postpaid mobile broadband contracts," notes Pyramid analyst Daniel Locke." In many emerging markets, especially India, Africa, and the Middle East, HSPA and WiMax networks deliver geographic coverage that will not be matched by wireline infrastructure in the foreseeable future," he adds. "The lack of coverage in emerging markets and rural areas of developed markets also puts 3G and WiMax as obvious choices for receiving broadband service."
Mobile broadband more popular in emerging markets
Another Pyramid analyst Dearbhla McHenry comments: "Just as markets in Africa and the Middle East were starved for voice communications prior to the mobile era, so too were they starved for Internet access: Inadequate fixed infrastructure and insufficient competition in the fixed market meant that services were either unavailable, unaffordable, or both. The launch of 3G services in much of the region means that its Internet market is now on the brink of a similar makeover as when the advent of mobile communications famously and dramatically transformed MEA's voice telecommunications sector," she adds. Pyramid's forecast, faster growth the global average.
And this is the important bit:
"The region's great unmet demand for Internet access, combined with its generally inadequate fixed networks, means that from 2008 through 2012, Africa and the Middle East will lead the world in terms of the percentage of broadband subscriptions that are mobile," writes McHenry. Their forecast for MEA is a CAGR of 335 to reach 32 million subscribers by 2014
Even in the air, mobile broadband is "taking off". According to In-Stat, the number of broadband enabled airplanes will increase from 25 in 2008 to 800 in 2009, generating $47 million in worldwide revenue in 2009. By 2012, In-Stat reckons it will have matured in to a $1 billion opportunity, with 200 million annual in-flight broadband connects by 2013. (That's assuming we are still flying to meetings rather than using Telepresence to avoid travel.)
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.