Mobile Broadband

June 20, 2010

Last week I gave a talk at the Mobile Life Center in Stockholm, Sweden about the study Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities, which was commissioned by the FCC. One question that was raised was, “Is mobile broadband being used by low-income consumers in the US?” While our research did not focus on examining this it is a timely query.

Mobility may be an important attribute for certain demographics and geographies. We observed, for example, that a relatively high number of respondents in New Mexico – where in some communities wireline connections aren’t available – had recently signed up for mobile broadband service (facilitated by plugging a USB stick into a laptop). According to the company’s website Cricket’s mobile internet service, for example, costs $40 per month with a $25 activation fee, but has no contract, cancellation fee, or security deposit requirements.

Though mobile broadband does require access to or ownership of a computing device the fact that this service isn’t tied to a physical address is likely a huge benefit for some consumers – college students who live part of the year at school and part with their parents, for instance, or others who may not have permanent housing.

The physical simplicity of the device may also be a benefit – requiring users to plug in an object about the size of one’s thumb rather than to connect a mangle of wires, modems and power plugs. A further development in mobile internet that may prove cost-effective for households is MiFi. MiFi is a palm-sized wireless router that creates a local WiFi hotspot, allowing up to five devices to connect at one time. This includes laptops, cameras, gaming devices, multimedia players, etc.

Both MiFi and mobile broadband services like Cricket rely on cellular data networks for connectivity. They currently provide relatively low connection speeds (5-8 Mb/s max) compared to what wireline fiber connections can provide (20Mb/s, 100Mb/s, 1GB/s, etc.) but are competitive with typical DSL and cable speeds. After years of enthusiasm in the tech community about WiMax – mobile broadband that can provide 40Mb/s + speeds – it is interesting to see the emergence of widespread mobile internet services which, while they may not meet our ideals, seem to fill a solid middle ground in the current market.

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Infrastructure, Social Impact