Who are Candidates for LTE Broadband Substitution?

Since major U.S. Long Term Evolution networks are still under construction in the United States, and since those builds naturally will occur first in the areas with greatest potential customers, LTE generally will be a market reality first in major and bigger market areas.

And since most people rightly assume that LTE might become a major broadband access alternative in rural areas where fixed networks are costly to build, we will soon start to get some idea of actual customer demand for use of LTE as an alternative to existing cable modem or digital subscriber line service.

Current experience with 3G substitution for fixed broadband is probably not going to be a very precise indicator of potential LTE substitution, for the simple reason that 3G is “slow,” compared to 4G. If you have used a 3G mobile connection (tethered or using Wi-Fi) as a substitute for a fixed connection, you know what I mean.

With some exceptions, the actual percentage of broadband users in developed markets who already use mobile broadband exclusively, in place of a fixed connection, is rather limited. A 2011 study by Ofcom, the United Kingdom communications regulator, suggests that single-digit percentages of users already are doing so, the exceptions being Italy and Austria. 

In Austria, perhaps 19 percent of respondents to surveys say they are “mobile only,” while in Italy about 14 percent report using only mobile broadband. In Germany the percentage was about nine percent, while in the United States the percentage of mobile only users was about six percent.

Still, those 3G figures suggest mobile executives are not wrong to think there is a substantial market for LTE broadband. The issue is how much demand, and what types of customers will be most receptive.

We can be sure that people who stream lots of Netflix video will not be the most logical candidates.

An analysis by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission suggested that, in the first half of 2009, the median (half used more, half used less) broadband user consumed almost two gigabytes of data per month.

The “average” (arithmetic mean) user consumed over nine gigabytes per month. Keep in mind that such “mean usage” is driven by a very small set of users who consume large amounts of data.

The 2009 study suggested that, overall, per-person usage is growing 30 percent too 35 percent per year. Also, keep in mind that the FCC study does not directly correlate a single person’s usage with the account details. In other words, a single user might have one access account, while a family might have three to five people sharing a single account.

So “typical” usage per account could be different from typical usage per person. As a rough metric, a typical 2.5-person household, sharing one account, might have consumed about six gigabytes a month, based on the 2009 data.

If the 30 percent annual growth rate remained intact through the end of 2012, that might imply 2014 median usage of about seven gigabytes per person, or 17.5 Gbytes per household account, using the 2.5 persons per home assumption.

Other 2010 estimates for current consumption were roughly in the same range as the 2009 FCC figures, adjusted for annual growth.  Comcast said in December 2010 that a typical user consumed about two to four gigabytes a month, far below the 250 gigabyte cap for a Comcast residential account.

That would be right in line with the FCC’s base of two gigabytes, and a growth rate of 30 percent annually.

About the same time, AT&T said its typical user (account, so that in many cases is a multiple-person household) of fixed high speed access consumed about 18 Gbytes a month. Assuming that figure also is for a 2.5-person household, per-person consumption would be about 7 Gbytes per person.

Per capita data consumption was in 2010 about 10 Gbytes a month, by some accounts, in France, the United States and Canada. Consumption per capita was more like 33 Gbytes a month in South Korea, but below nine gigabytes in many other countries. But those are arithmetic averages, and less accurate than the “mean” figure would show.

Actual data consumption for most users of fixed network broadband is not all that high, in other words.

Granted, the “typical” consumption tends to increase over time. In fact, it is not hard to find predictions that per person data consumption on fixed networks will exceed or approach 35 Gbytes by about 2015. Keep in mind those “per person” estimates are not necessarily directly related to “households or accounts,” though.

But the ability to substitute LTE mobile broadband for fixed network access hinges significantly on the “mean” usage. Though it once was difficult to buy (in the U.S. market) a mobile broadband plan of 5 Gbytes, those plans now routinely are available up to about 10 Gbytes.

Mobile broadband is more expensive than fixed broadband, on a cost per gigabyte, but the ability to substitute does exist, for at least some users who are at or below the “mean” levels of use.

Leaving aside cost, at least for the moment, it does seem feasible for a user to substitute LTE for a fixed connection in a single-user household that routinely consumes data at about the mean, or below the mean.

Multi-person households might find the substitution more challenging and heavy online video users will likely find substitution technically impossible or too costly, compared to a fixed connection of some sort.

On the other hand, some users at the mean, or below it, might opt for substitution in cases where the local fixed network is slower than LTE. How fast the user experience really is will vary from place to place.

In some areas, LTE might provide 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps. In other areas, speeds between 15 Mbps and 30 Mbps might be seen.

What that means for real-world customers is that the decision to substitute LTE for fixed broadband will depend on how much data the account must support, the available local speeds, the price equation and the number of users on a single account (assuming the buyer will use Wi-Fi for local distribution).

The most logical candidates are consumers who already rely on smart phones, are single-user accounts and at the mean, or below it, in terms of consumption. The most challenging use cases will be moderate online video consumers.

Heavy online video users will find the substitution opportunities very challenging. That also means the patterns will not be clear for some time. In the meantime, there will be experimentation, and a fair amount of customer churn, as users decide to try and see if it works.

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