Forecasts for Mobile Broadband Use From PCs and MIDs

Each year, mobile Internet access from PCs and other non mobile phone devices gets better and better and as I write these lines, I am sitting in a railway station in Paris, connected to the Internet via a 3G USB dongle at multi-megabit speeds. I travel a lot and depending on the country I am seeing lots of people doing the same these days. While at the beginning of this trend, the distinctively red Vodafone PC card adapters were dominant, today it's mostly 3G USB dongles and I wonder how many people still bother looking for suitable Wi-Fi to connect.

It's definitely a trend and operators in many countries are experimenting with it. So how will this trend continue? Dean Bubley over at Disruptive Wireless has worked on a detailed report on this and has published it this week. Here are some of the findings which I think are right on the mark:

  • 3G USB dongles will continue to be more successful for some time to come than built in 3G connectivity. From my experience in countries such as Germany and Austria, getting online is as simple as walking into the supermarket, picking up a 3G dongle and SIM card for a couple of euros. Unfortunately, it's not everywhere like this. In other European countries, like France for example, the situation is quite different, with operators still resisting the general trend. Built in 3G cards on the other hand are unlikely to get as cheap as Wi-Fi chips for quite some time to come so the PC/notebook industry is probably reluctant to add 3G capabilities to notebooks by default in the same way as Wi-Fi.
  • 340 million devices non mobile phone devices connected via 3G by 2014. An interesting number considering about 4 billion devices online by that time and unequal distribution of such devices mainly in developed markets. But given the falling prices and prepaid billing models by day, week and month, buying an inexpensive dongle for occasional use will definitely drive the numbers.
  • Dean estimates about 45 million WiMAX users by 2012. I think that's probably in the right ballpark as well. After lots of activity around alternative WiMAX operators in Europe 18 months ago, this has pretty much died down in the meantime and I think the window of opportunity has been pretty much lost. After all, 3.5G HSPA is now available in Austria, for example, for 9 euros a month with a traffic limit of 15 GB.
  • Impact of the Credit Crunch and the Capacity Crunch. Indeed, having more users on the network will of course drive bandwidth requirements and operators will have to monitor their networks closely and invest in upgrading the backhaul capacity of existing base stations and add additional ones in high traffic locations. The extend of this, however, has yet to be seen. I've done my own calculations on when we might see a general capacity crunch and I think it is still some years off. In the meantime, technology is developing and backhaul is getting cheaper. So it remains to be seen if the demand curve going upwards and infrastructure and backhaul prices going downwards can be brought into a healthy balance for everyone.

Lot's more to be found in Dean's report and if you are lucky enough to work for a company that appreciates the value of such research I encourage you to give your business intelligence department a call and ask if they have this report available.