Late yesterday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued fixed and wireless broadband statistics for its 34 member countries—essentially the nations of Western Europe and North America with some Asia Pacific representation in the form of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
The number one takeout is that there are substantially more wireless broadband services than fixed broadband services across the 34 developed nations: 667m wireless broadband subscriptions versus 314m fixed broadband subscriptions or about twice as much.
The number two takeout, if one is Australian, is that this country does spectacularly well in the larger wireless market: it ranks 8th in the world for wireless. Australian wireless broadband subscriptions at 16.6m outnumber fixed broadband subscriptions at 5.49m. This is about three times as much.
What might a communications minister do in these circumstances?
Well, he might issue a press release congratulating the industry on its fine effort in bringing wireless broadband to the equivalent of 75% of the population. He would likely cite the amazing and extensive personal productivity benefits that accompany this fantastic adoption rate of technology. And he would almost certainly be entitled to give himself a pat on the back for presiding over a supportive regulatory regime that has allowed all this growth to prosper.
So what does the communications minister, instead, actually do?
He issues a press release that completely ignores Australia’s top ten wireless status and instead focuses on the drifting fixed broadband network penetration rate (21st, down from its mainstay level of 16th through 18th over recent years) as vindication of the need for a national broadband network, which will actually have a smaller fixed footprint than the current reach of the DSL network. (Of course, there being no voice-only services on the NBN, all its subscribers will be counted as broadband users whether they use broadband or not, which should at least help that OECD number in a few years).
Last night the Coalition did what Conroy regularly did when he was in Opposition: mock the government, in this case comparing Conroy to a medieval doctor applying leeches to a wound!
My initial reaction to all this is: who cares? When we are going to get over this facile idea that wireless broadband isn’t proper broadband and that fixed is the real deal?
Average occupants per household in Australia is 2.6. There are over 3 wireless broadband services for every fixed broadband service in Australia. The market is talking.
What’s more, it is likely that the typical Australian probably spends more time with their mobile broadband device—at work, in transit, at home, even in bed—than the fixed broadband service at their home or work. Certainly ARPUs and overall spend suggest that people place a greater value on mobile broadband than fixed broadband; the former represents a much more substantial economic sector, with actual growth. Yes, fixed users download nine times more data than mobile users do: but does this data have the same value per bit? In terms of revealed preference of actual spend per bit, wireless wins.
How much of that fixed data download is economic junk? Stolen movies and music? Bloated hundred megabyte updates to patch badly written PC operating systems? Unwanted pop-up ads, video plays and malware? Fixed BB communications appears to be the only field of human endeavour where obesity is a virtue. Compare this to the stripped down utility of the wireless medium: lean 20MB 3D games & 2MB apps, compressed 100k photos, the elegant economy of 160 character tweets and SMSs, the invaluable utility of a medium that is largely by the recipient’s side for every minute of their waking day.
And unlike with fixed, there appears to be no great universal service or capital investment problem with mobiles.
The wireless operators definitely put more into the Treasury coffers than they take out, very much so with spectrum auctions around the corner: the same cannot be said for fixed operators at the moment who are getting the best part of $40 billion of state-administered funds spent on them at minimal risk. The NBN may well revolutionise society as we know it but the evidence where fibre and advanced wireless exist side-by-side in pervasive supply would suggest one shouldn’t bet on it: wireless remains the more exciting story in Japan and Korea.
Now, none of this is to diminish the exciting future for NBN services.
Yet, we should appreciate the reality: Australia is not only a wireless nation but a world leader and it’s about time we celebrated this instead of ignoring it. If the minister can’t congratulate the industry on such a great outcome then this publication will.