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Nuggets in new Oz broadband stats

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The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Internet Activity Survey is one of the country’s easiest sources of regular copy for tech writers: it’s published every six months on a predictable schedule, and merely reciting the data points is good for a couple of hundred words.

It is also, however, an important work: a longitudinal study now more than a decade old that reveals not only Australians’ subscription and download habits, but also mirrors the way carriers’ marketing decisions influence how we choose to connect.

For example, Australians were relatively indifferent to the advent of broadband in its earliest years, but when Telstra sparked a price war in 2004, there was a huge surge in subscriptions. That price war ended in regulatory action on the basis that Telstra was unfairly discriminating against its retailers, but the new price points also became the industry norm.

The newest release of the survey, here, looks like more grist to the “fixed broadband is dead” meme, with mobile wireless subscriptions (at nearly 4.8 million) surpassing DSL connections (nearly 4.5 million) for the first time.

Not only that, but the growth pattern now favours mobile broadband. ADSL services grew a respectable 6.7 percent in the year to June, mostly in the last six months of 2010 (from January to June, growth was only around 0.8 percent), while mobile broadband piled on more than 38 percent in a year (again, slowing in the second six months of the year, with only 13.1 percent growth since the start of this year).

But the “last legs” meme falls over completely when you look at data download volumes. In 2010, fixed broadband accounted for 91.4 percent of user downloads while wireless broadband users were responsible for just 8.4 percent of download volumes.

At the end of June 2011, fixed broadband download volumes increased their share of the total: growing by a stunning 64 percent over a year, fixed broadband is now responsible for more than 93 percent of user downloads, while wireless broadband download growth was slower (but still impressive) at 58 percent year-on-year, and its proportion of all downloads is down to around 7 percent.

The average Australian fixed broadband user, if my maths is correct, pulls down more than 19 GB per month, while the mobile broadband user only manages 1.3 GB per month.

One possible explanation of this is in another shift in services. While Australian fixed broadband growth is low compared to wireless, more of us are using faster services. Australians are abandoning sub-1.5 Mbps DSL services almost as quickly as we’re getting off dialup, with subscribers in that segment falling by more than 58 percent. Users instead shifted to services between 1.5 Mbps and 8 Mbps (up by more than 30%) and 8 Mbps to 24 Mbps (that is, ADSL2+ services), which rose by nearly 51 percent over the year.

It’s interesting to note that the number of users giving up low-speed broadband, at 1.1 million, is quite close to the number of new mobile broadband users in the year, at 1.3 million. Perhaps at lower speeds mobile broadband really can be considered a replacement for fixed broadband.

The popularity of faster services, and our very rapid shift to those services, also hints at why fixed broadband downloads are such a runaway train. As soon as users get the benefit of higher speeds and higher allowances, they download more.

And as has happened in the past, this is as much a reflection of what the industry is offering. ISPs are upgrading customers as a matter of course, as their chief customer retention strategy; and customers are saying “thanks”.

The advent of fibre, chiefly in new housing estates, is also there in the figures. If you like percentages, fibre is the runaway success of the year, growing by more than 138 percent. That’s a meaningless figure in context, however, since there are still only 31,000 fibre connections in this country. It’s also a mistake to attribute this to the advent of the National Broadband Network; the NBN is in pilot mode almost everywhere, and I’d be astonished if it contributed anything significant to the 18,000 new fibre connections in Australia.

The Internet Activity Survey is published here. ®

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