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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

PC vs mobile Internet access - where's the asymptote?

Clearly, access to the Internet from mobile devices is increasingly rapidly, from smartphones, lower-end featurephones and (depending on your definition) notebooks/netbooks.

As I've written about many times before, there's a huge debate about whether the future of the web lies in the mobile domain, or whether it will remain PC-centric.

Usually, the example that gets held up by the mobile fraternity is Japan, which clearly has been in the vanguard of wireless Internet adoption since the early days of i-Mode. The interesting thing to see is that in fact, most people in Japan use BOTH mobile and PC access. About 4% even use TV or game consoles as well.

The chart on Page 3 of this document from the Japanese Ministry of Communications is probably the most clear representation I've seen. I'll be interested to see what the end-2008 numbers look like, as there will undoubtedly be more mobile phone users, but also more people with netbooks and other mobile-broadband enabled notebooks. That said, the 3G dongle phenomenon doesn't appear to have been as broadly popular in Japan as elsewhere.

Of course, Japan could arguably be treated as an exception rather than an example -it is *different* to most markets in many ways. The operators control handset architecture & capabilities much more tightly, it was a very early adopter of 3G, and everyone is on poast-paid data plans with easy access to data. On the other hand, PC Internet is much more attractive as well, with ultra-fast and cheap DSL, and rapidly rising penetration of fibre to the home.

Looking at the stats, I wonder if the asymptote, for a country with affluent population and fantastic mobile and fixed networks, looks something like 15/70/15 . That is, 15% are mobile-only Internet users, 15% are PC-only, and 70% use both.

As I said, I'm hesitant to hold up Japan as an inevitable end-point for other country, because much of the technology market is pre-defined by "historical accidents" like government policy, specific operator strategies, or early PC/mobile uptake shaping users' behaviour.


Stefano Quintarelli said...

too early to tell.
IMHO, The fixed network connects places and the wireless network connects individuals.

Austria: 64% of new broadband subscribers are wireless
Italy: number of adds in 9 mo FY08 by TI are <200K fixed broadband, 1M wireless broadband
more stats here http://tinyurl.com/6ovv6h

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks Stefano

However, you're confusing wireless vs. fixed access medium, with phone vs. PC as the Internet access device.

I agree that mobile broadband access for PCs is becoming more important, and that in some cases it is substituting for low-volume ADSL/cable usage.

However the point I'm making in this post concerns the use of phones vs. PCs to access the Internet. If anything, the growth of PC-based mobile broadband in the last 18 months just proves that the PC will remain important, if not dominant, in defining how people experience the Internet. Obviously the iPhone & BlackBerry/Symbian/etc has shown that there is also a desire for phone-based access, but in almost all cases the owners of such handsets also use PC-based Web as well.

Separately, I think the unrealistic notion that mobile broadband will displace fixed connections will disappear in 2009, as network congestion shows the hard physical constraints on capacity for wireless.


Anonymous said...

Waiting for WiMAX

The drive to connect more rural areas will also foster the growth of wireless infrastructure since WiMAX is also considered to be the best option for last mile connectivity.

The growth in the size of the wireless infrastructure market is pushing northward. This growth is riding on the increasing numbers of subscribers and the untapped potential of the rural markets as majority of the country's population lives in rural areas. With the penetration of broadband falling short of the target set by the government, the authority is shifting gear from wired broadband to wireless connectivity, which includes WiMAX and other arrangements like infrastructure sharing. These technologies carry the promise of last mile connectivity and WiMAX is considered to be the most suitable way to connect the rural areas.

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks, but that article's not really relevant to this discussion.

Wireless broadband access technologies like WiMAX will certainly be important in rural areas. But it is still typically used to connect home networks for PCs.

My post was about the device, not the access network.