Mobile Data and the NBN

New data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the volume of data downloaded over mobile networks more or less doubled in the year from June 2012 to June this year. Predictably, if not depressingly, this has merely inspired many who already question the need for an NBN to redouble their efforts. Will they never learn?

The data shows that mobile downloads in Australia increased from 9.9 terabytes over the three months April-June 2011, to 19.6 terabytes in the three months to June 2012. The number of mobile subscribers also increased by about 13%. This tells us that the enormous increase in data usage does not reflect a commensurate increase in users. Existing customers are just using a lot more data.

This is not really surprising. All three Australian mobile networks now provide LTE speeds, enabling far more data to be downloaded more quickly. Furthermore, new devices are far more capable of chewing through data, and feature a far broader selection of 'essential' apps that require an internet connection.

Australia now has almost twenty million mobile subscribers, which is a pretty high number for a population of slightly over twenty-three million people. If mobile subscriptions continue to increase by 13% yet the population grows by only 1.8% (ABS figure), it won’t be long before there are more active mobiles than there are people. Presumably people are buying iPhones for their babies and pets. In any case, surely the people have spoken, and mobile is the way of the future.

After all, if everyone wants to use mobiles for their data – and bear in mind that those figures do not include data accessed over Wifi, but purely over mobile networks – then why do we need a National Broadband Network at all? So ask the NBN’s detractors. Why spend that much money on a fixed network, whether it costs $30bn (as is claimed for the government's proposed network), or all the money in the universe (which I think is the LNP’s latest claim for Labor’s version).

Well, part of the answer lies in the slipperiness of statistics, and the way they can be readily deployed by anyone for anything. A doubling of mobile data usage does sound like a lot, and neither the Murdoch nor Fairfax media were above using that titbit as click-bait in their headlines. But the ABS’s report also showed that the volume of data downloaded over fixed line connections itself increased by 60% over the last year. Obviously 60% isn’t as big as a 100% increase, but it’s still a lot, and becomes even more so when we take into account the scales in question. Mobile data usage doubled to nearly 20Tb per three months. Fixed data usage increased to 657Tb for the same period. Mobile data usage, even with the twofold increase, still accounts for about 3% of total downloads in Australia.

Even then, while mobile data usage mightcontinue to increase at this rate, there's every chance that it won't. Once everyone has bought their dog an iPhone 5C – presumably they are intended for colour-blind pets – then what? The deployment of LTE networks momentarily eased the congestion that crippled 3G networks, but that is showing signs of returning as more and more people flood onto them. Meanwhile fixed data usage has been increasing at a consistent rate for years, and the reasons why this is so haven’t gone away. All signs are that usage will continue to rise at about the same rate.

The NBN is not, and never was about whether or not people like using the internet on mobile devices. Mobile devices are great, and no one says otherwise. Right now I am writing this in a café with my laptop tethered to my iPhone. Also tethered to my iPhone is a shiny new Google Nexus 7. To suggest that those advocating for the NBN are somehow against the uptake of mobile services is to construct the flimsiest of straw men. Often they are precisely the kind of people who value mobility the most, and are driving the increase in usage.

An NBN is required because Australia’s fixed data requirements are increasing heavily year on year, and long ago attained volumes far beyond the capabilities of any mobile solution. Why isn't this cutting through?