Why broadband is less popular in apartments

If you live in an apartment, you're less likely to have broadband than those living in a stand-alone home. Why is that?

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) 2011 Census shows that back then, 70 percent of Australian residences had a broadband connection in some shape or form. That was a massive leap from the 39 percent five years earlier. Only 20 percent of homes had no internet connection at all.

Apartments, which accounted for 13 percent of all properties, had a noticeably lower broadband penetration — just 63 percent. Why the difference? There's often talk about physical factors limiting access to multi-dwelling units (MDUs). That might be the case with fibre, but why would it matter with DSL?

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

Or is it because apartment dwellers are younger, more likely to move, and less likely to commit to a broadband contract?

That's certainly not the case in Willoughby, on Sydney's North Shore. This is the local government area, which, at the time of the last census, had the country's highest penetration of broadband in apartments (81 percent). And it's an area with a lot of apartments (42 percent of the population live in one). But there, apartment living is a lifestyle choice. These people aren't youngsters, either; the median age was 37, and 52 percent of the population had been at the same address for five years or more — the same as the Australian average across all property types.

Compare that to Perth, a local government area with an even higher proportion of apartment dwellers (88 percent), but a much lower penetration of broadband in those apartments (74 percent). Here, it is a much more peripatetic population — only 19 percent of people had been at the same address five years previously. So, this demonstrates how transient populations are less willing to enter into a broadband contract, doesn't it?

Well, no. Take central Melbourne as another example. This is a local government area where 78 percent of people lived in apartments, and less than a quarter of the population had been at the same address for more than five years. Yet, broadband was hooked up to 79 percent of apartments — the second-highest region in the country.

Central Adelaide tells the same story: Younger age, high number of apartments, transient population, but still a high level of broadband penetration in apartments. Perhaps in these younger areas, there are more flat shares, so people are happy to pass broadband contracts on, or maybe they're using mobile.

When we split broadband penetration according to tenure, we actually find that local government areas with a more transient population are actually more likely to have broadband. And the difference is greatest amongst apartment dwellers. You can see it in this second graph, which shows that in areas where less than half of the population had lived there for five years or more, 68 percent of apartment dwellers had broadband. It's much lower (59 percent) in areas where people had lived there longer. Somewhat counter-intuitive.

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

So, what can we now conclude? Apartment dwellers are often more transient, and they love their broadband? In which case, we still have the question about why penetration is lower in apartments than it is in separate houses.

Perhaps the answer lies in aged housing. In Victor Harbor, South Australia, where 35 percent of the population is over 65, only 36 percent of apartments had broadband. In contrast, mining towns like Weipa and Port Hedland have virtually no one over 65, and three quarters of apartments connected up to broadband.

And across the country, we do see lower broadband penetration in apartments in areas where more of the population are beyond retirement age. The difference is far more pronounced than it is for people living in separate houses, presumably because there is a retirement village factor at play. A scan of many promotional websites for these places failed to see any mention of the words "broadband" or "internet".

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

Just as last week, we showed that to a point, income is as big an influence on broadband adoption as accessibility , this week's data seems to suggest that the same applies for age. But is it a lack of interest, or just the fact that these places have chosen not to hook up? If more retirement villages had access, perhaps the age divide would disappear, and, along with it, this discrepancy between houses and apartments. If more old folks had access, it could become a welcome diversion to lawn bowls and daytime TV.