Ofcom: Fixed broadband still bears the brunt of data

Even though there are twice as many 3G connections as fixed-line broadband in the UK, the amount of data passed over mobile broadband is a very small percentage of the total for home usage, according to Ofcom

People use on average about 1.5 percent as much data on smartphones and mobile broadband dongles as they do on their fixed home broadband, according to Ofcom.

In its first Communications Infrastructure Report (PDF), released on Tuesday, the telecoms regulator said residential connections carry 17GB of data per month on average, while mobile broadband connections handle 240MB, mostly in the form of downloads.

"The data suggests that consumers continue to rely on fixed networks for the bulk of their data consumption and a number of operators are turning to fixed networks to off-load traffic from mobile devices on to fixed networks using Wi-Fi and similar technologies," Ofcom said.

However, Ofcom pointed out that only 32 percent of mobile phone owners use their handset to access the internet. This means that the actual average use for mobile broadband is likely to be between two and three times greater than 240MB a month — from 500MB to 720MB.

By comparison, many mobile broadband plans impose data caps of 500MB a month for a standard smartphone. As Ofcom's 3G statistics cover both handsets and dongles — which typically have higher caps and different usage patterns — this makes it tricky to draw definitive conclusions about how reasonable the phone data caps are in reality.

The data suggests that consumers continue to rely on fixed networks for the bulk of their data consumption.

– Ofcom

"It is unclear whether, without these caps, mobile operators would experience significant capacity limitations on their networks," the regulator said.

Overall, data use on mobile broadband is, on average, just 1.4 percent of the total for home broadband. Nevertheless, there are twice as many 3G connections than there are fixed broadband lines — 38 million rather than 18 million, according to Ofcom.

In March, 311 million gigabytes of data passed over fixed broadband connections, and nine million gigabytes over 3G — meaning the mobile total was 2.9 percent of that for fixed.

For home broadband, the average monthly data usage ranges between 10GB and 40GB, depending on the operator. The report noted that the London Internet Exchange, which interconnects various ISPs, has seen a sevenfold increase in traffic over the past five years.

"While future demand for capacity is uncertain, if demand continues to increase at current rates, ISPs will need to make further investment in their networks," Ofcom said, adding that BT, Virgin Media and others are investing to boost capacity.

Infrastructure reports

The report is the first in a series of three-yearly communications infrastructure assessments the regulator will pass on to the government, as required by the Digital Economy Act. Ofcom published details of fixed-line coverage in July, and the release on Tuesday rounded that report out with information about mobile networks, digital TV and digital radio.

As it is the first report, Ofcom has no point of comparison for judging trends. However, although a comprehensive report is required only every three years, Ofcom said it will "provide annual updates on mobile and fixed-line broadband services, as these are changing rapidly".

The report does not go into detailed comparisons between operators, as the data comes from the service providers themselves. "Network operators monitor and measure their networks in different ways," Ofcom noted. As a result, the regulator said, "only a limited set of conclusions can be drawn from this first set of data".

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