Sunday, 15 June 2008

Mobile to displace fixed-line internet 'within two years'


By 2010, the mobile phone network will have overtaken home broadband as the primary way of connecting to the web, experts say

Ethernet cables going into a broadband router

On the way out? Mobile internet dongles are replacing cables

Jonathan Richards

The mobile phone network may replace the copper wire as the principal method by which people connect to the internet in as little as two years, broadband experts predict.

Increased sales of laptops - which can be connected to the internet via the owner's mobile phone connection - the widespread roll out of high-speed mobile networks and the falling price of connecting to such networks have all contributed to the uptake of mobile broadband, they said.

One person in ten now regularly accesses the internet on a computer via a mobile phone connection, despite such services only having been on sale for less than a year, according to research released this week by You Gov. Of those, up to a third now connect their computers to the internet solely through the mobile network.

"This trend is as significant as the shift from home to mobile phones that took place in the mid Nineties," a spokesman for Top 10 Broadband, a price comparison site, said. "We predict that by 2010, mobile broadband will overtake home broadband as the default way to access the internet in the UK." A similar claim was made by Broadband Expert, another comparison site.

Mobile broadband takes advantage of high-speed 3G phone networks that can transfer data at speeds approaching those achieved by a fixed-line home internet connection. The customer plugs a small device known as a dongle into a laptop's USB port, and can then surf the web at speeds of about 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps).

Most home broadband packages advertising speeds of "up to 8Mbps" achieve speeds of 2.7Mbps, according to a study by Which? last year.

The You Gov poll found that mobile broadband was most popular with students and other "highly mobile" people who did not want to be tied to fixed-line contracts in homes where they did not spend all their time. But as prices came down and network capacity grew, the service would emerge as a genuine alternative to the fixed-line internet for a greater number of people, mobile industry experts said.

Prices have come down by 50 per cent from late last year, with a typical mobile broadband package now costing £15 a month - roughly on par with a fixed-line deal.

Ian Fogg, an analyst at Jupiter Research, said that uptake was principally driven by the increased popularity of laptop computers, which were now owned by 40 per cent of people who use the internet, and could be used to get online when a person was on the move.

"If you're out with your laptop, the only option at the moment for say uploading your photos to a social networking site is either waiting til you get home, which is annoying, or finding a wi-fi hotspot, which can take time and costs money," he said. "Mobile broadband, by comparison, has come right down in price, and quality of high speed HSDPA - or 3.5G - networks has improved dramatically."

Mr Fogg added, however, that the fixed-line internet was still preferable for people who wanted to stream a lot of video or share large files over the internet, and was also better suited to supporting large numbers of people on the network at any one time.

3, one of the first UK operators to introduce mobile broadband, offers 18-month broadband contracts which include 3GB of content - the equivalent of six to ten hours of video on the BBC iPlayer - for £15 a month. For existing 3 customers, the package costs £7.50 a month. Tiscali's lowest fixed-line "broadband and talk" package - which includes line rental - costs £9.99 per month.

"For most people who want to use the internet to browse the web, send pictures, use social networking sites and things like instant messaging, mobile broadband can be a genuine alternative to fixed line," a 3 spokesman said.

Tiscali, a traditional internet service provider which stands to be affected by a large-scale shift to mobile broadband, declined to comment.

Richard Osborne, commercial director at Broadband Expert, said that there were still problems with 3G coverage, but these were being ironed out. "In central London, it's fine, but if you're on the train, there's going to be deadspots," he said. "It's only going to improve."

According to a study by Broadband Expert in March, the average speed offered by mobile broadband providers was 1.46Mbps, about half that of standard home broadband.

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