FCC report shows rising profile for wireless broadband

As the broadband category grows, wireless is poised to overtake fixed broadband for total connections.

wireless broadband illustration


Residential mobile wireless connections appeared poised to outnumber fixed network connections sometime in 2013.

The FCC’s Internet Access Services Report, expressing data from Internet providers collected through December 2012, paints a picture of a fast-changing broadband environment where mobile broadband providers have gained enormous market presence and were on the verge of surpassing fixed providers for numerical supremacy in the category.

Download the 2013 FCC Internet Access Services Report here.

Overall, the FCC counted 105 million total residential broadband connections delivering downstream data rates advertised at 3 Mbps or faster, coupled with upstream data rates of 768 kbps or faster, as of December 2012. That’s more than 3x the number (29 million) recorded at the close of 2008, reflecting the rapid adoption of broadband in the U.S.

One interesting underlying story is the rapid ascension of mobile as a broadband access technology. Of a total of U.S. 131 million mobile wireless connections delivering downstream data of at least 200 kbps, about 35% meet the FCC hurdle of a 3 Mbps/768 kbps broadband service. As such, mobile wireless providers accounted for 45 million residential connections meeting the higher-performance broadband threshold as of December 2012, exhibiting a growth trajectory that’s impressive. Based on the growth curve, mobile wireless providers were poised to overtake fixed providers for the sheer number of residential broadband connections sometime in 2013 (and likely did – although the data won’t be published by the FCC until late 2014). 

Before we risk overstating the gravity here, some caveats are in order. Keep in mind the FCC counts “residential connections” reported by providers. In the case of mobile wireless, that means one connection is tallied for every individual subscribing to a mobile broadband service. In the case of fixed providers, the FCC is receiving reported counts of households, not individuals, as fixed broadband residential connections almost always are shared among residents.

That gives a huge numerical advantage to wireless for total connections. Also, in the large majority of cases, it’s not an either-or scenario. Instead, individuals have access to both types of access networks. In other words, an individual with a mobile wireless connection likely lives in a residence where there is also a fixed broadband connection.

That said, the trend line is interesting in that it indicates that the U.S. was on the brink of an inflection point in which there are more wireless broadband connections than fixed broadband connections. Looking forward, a provocative question is whether at some point a meaningful number of users might elect to discontinue a fixed broadband connection in favor of a wireless-only broadband tether to the Internet.

Aside from the evolving yin-yang between fixed and wireless networks, the FCC report offers a densely packed statistical portrait of broadband in the U.S. circa 2012. Among highlights:

The market grew impressively in 2012. Looking at the total marketplace, including all business and residential connections, at year-end 2012, there were almost 65 million total fixed and 64 million mobile connections with download speeds advertised at or above 3 Mbps and upload speeds advertised at or above 768 kbps as compared to 51 million fixed and 31 million mobile connections a year earlier.

Higher speeds are evident in more places. The number of connections with downstream speeds advertised at least 10 Mbps increased by 35% over December 2011, to 60 million connections. Also, the reported data show a 18% annual increase in the number of residential fixed-location connections that are advertised to provide at least 6 Mbps downstream and 1.5 Mbps upstream (from 32.3 million to 38.1 million) and a 20% annual increase in the number of connections that are advertised to provide at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1.5 Mbps upstream (from 31.6 million to 38.0 million).

More mobile wireless customers are taking all-you-can-eat data plans. Reported residential mobile wireless service subscribers with mobile devices and data plans for full Internet access increased by 24%, to 131 million, between December 2011 and December 2012. 

Cable remains the dominant provider of fixed broadband access. At the end of 2012, cable accounted for 41 million of the 60 million residential connections delivering data rates of 3Mbps/768kbps or faster – a market share of 60%. DSL lines accounted for 11.6 million connections, and fiber-to-the-home access networks accounted for 6 million connections.

Broadband availability is high. Less than 1% of U.S. census tracts had no provider advertising a 200 kbps or better Internet access service. (There are 74,000 U.S. census tracts, although not all contain households.) Roughly 16 percent of census tracts did not have an advertised mobile broadband service available as of December 2012.