Thursday, 16 May 2013

Rising mobile offload to Wifi - saviour of the case for FTTH, or warning sign?

The ever-interesting Benoît Felten has a post up about WiFi offload, with some stats from Mobidia. These figures show that between two-thirds and three-quarters of traffic to mobile devices travels by WiFi, not macrocellular.

His conclusion is:

   Take that, “we’ll only need mobile networks in the future” posse…

And in that he's surely right. No matter how exciting the potential of mobile data, its simply not, at a nationwide level, a substitute for fixed broadband. If the traffic off-loaded to WiFi and the fixed network today were to be 'on-loaded' on to the cellular network, the cellular network would fall over. (This is different of course from decisions at an individual consumer level - some households may decide they can get by with mobile broadband and no fixed broadband).

However, while the future of fixed broadband seems secure, I think usage of mobile devices has a more subtle message regarding the prospects for superfast broadband. Sandvine have recently released their fascinating Global Internet Phenomena Report. One finding is that in North America, 25% of streaming audio and video traffic is delivered to a mobile device in the home - up, presumably, from 0% just a few years ago in the era before smartphones and tablets. This is roughly consistent with figures from the BBC regarding usage of their iPlayer on-demand TV service - 30% of requests for programmes are coming from mobiles and tablets (up from 15% a year ago).

What's this got to do with FTTH? Well, one of the supposed drivers of the need for FTTH is 4K TVs -here's NBN Co getting excited about 85" TV screens. However, if usage of on-demand TV is already shifting to small, handheld devices, that suggests usage on mega-TVs may not be quite what the enthusiasts hope. Mobile devices offer the convenience of a personal device that they can watch in any room of the house (or perhaps in bed - iPlayer's peak of requests is after 10pm). Consumers increasingly seem to be choosing this over watching the content on a bigger screen, be that a TV or a PC monitor.

This isn't an absolute, of course. Households may want the huge screen for the big film on a Saturday night. But for day-to-day use, convenience may trump resolution.

[A footnote : I suspect the Mobidia numbers may be somewhat too high. The data is drawn from the users of Mobidia's 'My Data Manager' app, tag-line: "Take control of your mobile data". I suspect this may not be a representative sample, since such users may be a little more inclined than average to ... err ... take control of their mobile data. They perhaps are more diligent than the average in offloading. However, there's no doubt that WiFi offload is very significant, and drives an ongoing need for widespread fixed broadband.]


  1. Good point about the Mobidia data, I didn't look into the protocol. Ensuring representativity is tricky, especially when you try and do things on the cheap.

    Regarding 4k TV as a driver for FTTH, and can only agree with you, it's a bullsh*t argument. It's yet another attempt at finding a killer app.

    That being said, if HD TV needs to be streamed to 3 or 4 screens simultaneously in the home including the TV, and if tablet screen resolution keeps going up, that might represent a heck of a lot of bandwidth soon.

  2. Benoît -

    Agreed re more screens. The level of simultaneous use is a vital issue here, and certainly mobile devices make such use more convenient and therefore likely.

    Will tablet screen resolution keep going up? I thought we had arrived at 'retina' displays already :-)