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Friday, July 11, 2008

The upside-down pyramid of mobile broadband

I've been seeing an awful lot of PR spin recently about the numbers of supposed "mobile broadband" subscribers, and how this will likely "overtake" fixed broadband.

While I'm a big believer in 3G dongles, and also in using devices like high-end smartphones (Nokia, iPhone et al) with decent browsers & flatrate data, there's a huge amount of hype here.

A key thing to remember if you're scrutinising numbers is this:

- Pretty much anyone with a 3G modem for a PC & a data subscription will actually use it regularly (unless it's embedded) & probably generate a huge amount of traffic
- Pretty much anyone with fixed broadband will use it very regularly, and so will 1-3 other members of their family too.
- Quite a lot of people with an HSPA or EVDO Rev A handset will never use data at all, or will use it for very occasional downloads or web browsing. Plenty of Nokia N95 or Samsung Soul owners bought the device because it's got a 5MP camera. (I'd expect most iPhone 3G users to be pretty active with their data connection though).

The idea that there is 100m+ active users of "mobile broadband" in any meaningful sense is doubtful. The fact that someone can download the 50kb front page of their operator's WAP portal at 7.2Mbit/s is not exactly what "broadband" means to most casual observers.

I'm currently working on a model of mobile data users & devices & traffic & applications, but as a rule of thumb some averages might be

PC+dongle = 1GB / month
iPhone-type device with decent data plan =100MB / month
Blackberry-type device or smartphone with limited data plan = 10MB / month
Everything else = 1MB / month or less

In other words, there is what Boris Johnson might refer to as an "inverted pyramid of piffle" when it comes to discussion about mobile broadband. A few % of the users generate a huge % of the traffic, while a large chunk of supposed users (ie people with suitable phones & networks) generate none at all. This will change only slowly, as PC-based mobile broadband is still early in its growth cycle, while 3G is being pushed into handsets of people who still don't care about anything more than voice & SMS.

Bottom line - you'll be seeing a lot more press hyperbole about the numbers of "mobile broadband" users. They might be fruit, but they're not all Apples. But don't compare them with Oranges. (Puns intended, sorry, it's Friday afternoon).


Anonymous said...

until you post this 'model' that you are working on it's hard to take your opinions seriously.

Dean Bubley said...


Thanks for your intelligent & erudite contribution to the debate.

If you think I'd post the full analysis on my blog for free, you're clearly not the type of person I'm aiming to engage with.

Perhaps you'd like to venture an opinion of your own, about how much you think I care about whether you take my views seriously or not?

Anonymous said...

Wow! That was acerbic!

I like your blog. This was a little uncharacteristic.

(not the same) anonymous

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous 2

Yes, well occasionally I do get trolls as I don't moderate the comments, or delete the worthless ones (except outright offensive ones or spam).

It's the price I pay for pointing out the state of various Emperors' clothes.

I hope the occasional incident of lively banter doesn't diminish it in your eyes.


john said...

Dean, I totally agree with your thoughts above - in fact, it's not much more than common sense!

Migration to mobile broadband is pretty inevitible over the medium term - a quick look at the device and chip roadmaps of all the major players confirms this. So the constant hype from a telco industry constantly looking for assurance does no favours.

Anonymous said...

the 100mb iphone figure is difficult to beieve- i thought iphone was sideloadign only? and yeah i know its iphone-like devices you're referring to. from my operator perspective perspective it looks like pretty decent inputs...will get in touch when the output is ready :-)

George Sarmonikas said...

Hi Dean,

I would like to correct you on your assumption below:
iPhone-type device with decent data plan =200MB-300MB / month. definitely not 100MB.

PC+dongle users usually consume about 1GB/month, (as you mention correctly). that makes 75% of total MBB users. and only around 5-9% exceed 3GB/month.

congratulations for your post. it's great.