By the numbers: Fixed broadband does the heavy lifting

By the numbers: Fixed broadband does the heavy lifting

Summary: The latest ABS figures should finally put to rest any crazy notion that wireless is killing demand for fixed broadband.

TOPICS: Networking

The last year has seen a huge rise in demand for mobile broadband (tablets and computers connected by a SIM or dongle, not handsets). The number of subscribers in June 2012 was 5.9 million, up 22 percent. Yet, there's clearly no substitution for fixed services, which have also gone up, albeit by a modest 3 percent for DSL and 4 percent for cable.


These latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) seem to support my assertion last week that given the choice, most people will choose a fixed connection as their primary internet source. Mobile broadband adds extra flexibility to our lives, but we're quick to replace wireless as a fixed connection if we have the chance (fixed-wireless connections have fallen 4 percent over the last year to just 30,000 subscribers).

The reason, of course, is our quest for speed. When faster speeds are available, consumers quickly gravitate toward them. Just three years ago, one third of home subscribers were connected at speeds of 8Mbps or more; today, it's well over half, with almost a quarter of those at 24Mbps or greater. The rate of adoption of these high speeds has slowed over the last year, but that's probably a reflection of exhausting the geographic reach of DSL2+ services, rather than any slowing in demand.


Fixed connections also cure our hunger for downloads; just 6 percent of data is downloaded from a wireless connection, a slight drop on a year ago. According to the ABS data in the June 2012 quarter, 5.7 million wireless subscribers downloaded 25,301 terabytes of data — a little over 1 gigabyte each per month. Compare that to the fixed-line world, where 5.6 million subscribers have downloaded 389,130 terabytes of data, about 17 gigabytes each per month.

Clearly, we're using our fixed-line connections for heavy lifting, and that situation isn't going to change anytime soon, if ever. Downloads from the average fixed-line user have increased almost 50 percent over the last year, but just 11 percent for the average mobile user.

Is that enough to end the discussion that mobile connectivity can ever replace the strength of the fixed line?

Topic: Networking


Phil Dobbie has a wealth of radio and business experience. He started his career in commercial radio in the UK and, since coming to Australia in 1991, has held senior marketing and management roles with Telstra, OzEmail, the British Tourist Authority and other telecommunications, media, travel and advertising businesses.

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  • Wireless data exploding in subscribers and usage

    Speed (rather than flexibility) remains the strength of fixed.

    Slowing of high speed (24+ mbps) fixed broadband likely the result of HFC network agreement with the NBNCo and the later's delay in rolling out their network. DSL investment practically halted with the NBNCo announcement (breaks their ROI).

    NBNCo's offferings the only area of investment thanks to their taxpayer funding model (uncompetitive for others). Competive infrastructre brought out to remove comepetion, contractual anti-compete clauses used to make sure.
    Richard Flude
  • A bit of a stretch

    It is a bit of a stretch to conclude that speed is the driver for the preference for fixed broadband. I can think of three other factors that would probably be stronger drivers. I am sure that there are more.

    First, the applications and devices are going to be the primary driver. Your PC is going to do its software updates via whatever broadband access it is connected to. No one is going to choose whether to use fixed or mobile - it is inherent to the device. A web enabled TV is going to draw content via a fixed broadband connection because that is what it is likely to be connected to. Conversely, tablets and laptops will be the devices using mobile broadband. Even so, if your laptop automatically connects to your WiFi network, who would bother plugging in a dongle? This is a simple matter of convenience, not speed.

    Second and related to the previous point is typical volumes of content. Apps are smaller than PC software upgrades, so volume is going to be smaller. Even video content is likely to be smaller for mobile devices.

    Finally there is cost. How much does a 100GB mobile plan cost? Right now, fixed broadband volume is cheaper than the same volume of mobile data. If the pricing changes, so too will some of the usage patterns.

    For applications where speed matters, it will be a determining factor. Even so, as long as the speed is sufficient for the application that is all that matters.
  • It's actually rather simple math and physics

    Devices default to fixed lines because either the consumer who buys them or the company that makes them knows that fixed line networks have better quality data (read higher capacity / speed). If wireless networks were faster they would be the default option. But they are not.

    The switch from fixed wireless to fixed ADSL / HFC or Fibre illustrates the superior performance of fixed line networks. ie if fixed wireless could provide a fixed line broadband experience no one would be switching. The convenience argument is illustrated by the rapid increases in the number of wireless connected devices. But the growth in fixed line connections shows ZDNet's thesis that fixed networks are needed for heavy lifting is perfectly true. Consider also why even wireless convienience users terminate their wireless devices on WiFi connections connected to a fixed line broadband network as soon as they can, rather than using 3/4G: Again the answer is speed.

    Also when you say pricing changes will change usage behaviours it is also important to understand the extent to which pricing might feasibly change. Contemplate why a $1bn mobile network should offer data on terms which are more expensive than much more expensive fixed line networks. The answer is either an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory or that the capacity of the mobile network is that much lower than that of a fixed line network. Then consider that capacity is just another word for speed- just compare the units (Mbs-1, Gbs-1, Tbs-1) that capacity and speed are measured in. The bottom line is that fixed broadband will always be cheaper than mobile broadband unless there is a major regulatory failure.

    When you then further consider that physics of frequency and radio modulation govern the maximum possible capacities and speeds of networks of all kinds then you should come to the realisation that fibre will always be perform better than wireless networks.

    This all means that there are all very real reasons why fixed line networks do the heavy lifting and it has nothing to do with mere preferences or convenience; and everything to do with the higher speeds of fixed line networks and what those higher speeds provide.
    • The network characteristics are different

      "better quality data (read higher capacity / speed)"

      Quality is only a measure of speed?

      "If fixed wireless could provide a fixed line broadband experience no one would be switching"

      Throw in price and availability.

      "When you then further consider that physics of frequency and radio modulation govern the maximum possible capacities and speeds of networks of all kinds then you should come to the realisation that fibre will always be perform better than wireless networks."

      Radio modulation governs maximum capacities of fibre networks?

      You restrict performance to speed; others might include price, flexibility, redundancy, etc.

      For example my 3G network performs better in my car than fibre;-)
      Richard Flude
  • Sorry, but you are making the same mistake

    Like the original article, you have simply jumped to the conclusion that the reason people are using the fixed network is speed with absolutely no foundation for that assumption. I am not disputing that there is a preference for fixed. All I am questioning is the assumption that speed is the driver when there are so many other factors.

    Optical fibre will always be a step ahead of mobile networks in terms of speed. No one is disputing that. That speed is the sole motivator for preferring one over the other is what is in dispute.