According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, there were 85.6 million fixed network broadband connections in use in the United States in December 2011.
There also were 235.2 million wireless broadband connections in use at the same time, for a total of 320.8 million broadband connections. That has obvious implications for service providers, investors, end users and regulators alike, as it means any effort to measure broadband subscribers, access speeds and prices is much more complicated than it once was.
Mobile is the big change, as mobile broadband already represents 73.3 percent of all U.S. broadband connections. That is not to say fixed and mobile broadband are full substitutes for each other. Potential bandwidth, price per bit and location are key dimensions on which mobile broadband and fixed broadband are distinct products.
But as tablets show a historic shift in what people are doing, and want to do, using “computing” devices, people are showing historic new patterns in terms of how they want to consume Internet applications and content.
Though the trend is most clear in developing regions, where a mobile device is the primary way people use Internet apps, it increasingly is the case that a “small screen” smartphone or feature phone is the way many people are choosing to use the Internet.
Though in many cases mobile and fixed usage modes are complementary, there is growing evidence that many people prefer to use mobile broadband as their primary or “only” way of using the Internet.
Since at least 2010, evidence has been growing that Hispanics and blacks prefer to use mobile devices for Internet access. Some 17 percent of mobile phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device, Pew Internet & American Life Project reports.
Most do so for convenience, but for some their phone is their only option for online access, the study suggests.
Moreover, 31 percent of these current mobile Internet users say that they mostly go online using their mobile phone, and not using some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer.
A 2010 study by the Pew project, found that 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of white Americans.
A greater percentage of whites than blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home, but laptop ownership is now about even for all these groups, after black laptop ownership jumped from 34 percent in 2009 to 51 percent in 2010, according to Pew researchers.
The point is that policy makers now must account for the growing mobile preference when assessing the state of broadband access. Service providers have to decide where and how much to invest in fixed versus mobile networks and services. Investors have to make choices about where profit might lie. And end users have to make choices about which forms of access make the most sense.
None of those issues are as easy as they once were, which, arguably, is a good thing in some ways. End users have much more choice.
But some issues are harder, such as the challenge of crafting policies that promote consumer welfare, or making long-term decisions about where to invest new capital.
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