Feature Article

June 22, 2012

Is the 'Broadband' Problem Now Fixed?

One staple of opinions about the state of broadband in the United States is that there is always some new “problem” or “gap” that has to be “fixed,” typically by some action of government. In past years, some observers have lamented the “lagging” adoption of important technologies, ranging from use of mobile phones, to use of text messaging, to broadband, to high-speed broadband. The usual refrain is either that the United States lags the world leaders, or that some populations within the United States, do not use tools as much as others.

Those concerns consistently have proven to be overblown. Once people figure out how some innovation adds value to their lives, the adoption problem has vanished. That is not to say consumers will not require higher bandwidths and richer services over time. It is to say that supplying those needs is not going to be a problem, anymore than it has proven to be the case in the past.

There is some tendency to believe that “everybody” has to use the same tools, in the same way. And one might reasonably argue that people, who do not use the Internet, or computers, or broadband, or mobile phones, will be at some disadvantage. 

But some people do not want to use the Internet. And we ought to be leery about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. The “problems” will be “fixed” naturally, over time.

Consider broadband. There are some 93.3 million broadband subscriptions in service in the United States in the first quarter of 2012, according to the Broadband Forum. If all those subscriptions were purchased by consumers (they probably aren’t, as business accounts might be tallied separately by many of the service providers), one might hypothesize that broadband access penetration were as high as 83 percent.

Some will still that as a problem, and some might argue the statistics are wrong.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were in 2010 about 131 million U.S. housing units. If you assume 660,000 new units get added every year, that would suggest about 131.7 million units.

About 112 million of those units are occupied on a full-time basis. So assume the potential market for fixed network broadband access consists of 112.6 million units. For the sake of simplicity, ignore any units that prefer to use wireless access.

But not all broadband access accounts are sold to consumers.

Still, some estimates peg U.S. household penetration of broadband access between 82 percent and 84 percent, so 83 percent would not be unusual. 

Keep in mind that use of the Internet might be something of interest to 79 percent of U.S. households, since some households do not own computers, or own computers but do not use the Internet. Some would argue non-use of computers is a problem. That might be true, but also is a problem that will “fix itself” as younger users, who always have used computing devices, become the whole population, over time.

Also, use of fixed broadband access is not the only form of access, and not the only form of access people might prefer to use. In a growing percentage of cases, people also use their smart phones as the primary way of using the Internet. 

Nearly half of all adults (47 percent) go online with a laptop using a Wi-Fi connection or mobile broadband card (up from the 39 percent who did so as of April 2009) while 40 percent of adults use the internet, e-mail or instant messaging on a mobile phone (up from the 32 percent of Americans who did this in 2009), the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in 2010.

Since then, mobile Internet access has grown, especially among minority Americans.  When asked what device they normally use to access the internet, 25 percent of all smartphone owners say that they mostly go online using their phone, rather than with a computer.

While many of these individuals have other sources of online access at home, roughly one third of these "cell mostly" Internet users lack a high-speed home broadband connection, Pew researchers say.

In other words, about eight percent of broadband users might rely exclusively on mobile broadband (a third of the respondents who “mostly” rely on mobile broadband).

If you assume the 83 percent broadband adoption figure is correct, and add eight percent more “mobile only” users, then it is possible broadband access now is purchased by 91 percent of households.

The point is that every “gap” we might point to has been closed, very quickly. 

Want to learn more about today’s powerful mobile Internet ecosystem? Then be sure to attend the Mobility Tech Conference & Expo, collocated with ITEXPO West 2012 taking place Oct. 2-5 2012, in Austin, TX. Co-sponsored by TMC Partner Crossfire Media the Mobility Tech Conference & Expo provides unmatched networking opportunities and a robust conference program representing the mobile ecosystem. The conference not only brings together the best and brightest in the wireless industry, it actually spans the communications and technology industry. For more information on registering for the Mobility Tech Conference & Expo click here.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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