According to Phil Dobbie, the answer is clearly ‘no’. See here. And Phil’s case is strong, that fixed-line internet, with its higher speeds, dominates in terms of ‘big downloads’:
Clearly, we’re using our fixed-line connections for heavy lifting, and that situation isn’t going to change anytime soon, if ever. Downloads from the average fixed-line user have increased almost 50 percent over the last year, but just 11 percent for the average mobile user.
But ‘ever’ is a long time and I am less sanguine that fixed-line will dominate mobile for ‘ever’, at least in its current form.
My caution is based on three bits of information. First, we have had about 20 years experience with fixed versus mobile telephone services. In developed countries, early studies showed that fixed line and mobile phone services tended to be complements. But more recently they have behaved like substitutes with fixed line subscriptions falling as mobile phone services increase. Ingo Vogelsang has a survey here.
While internet services and telephone calls are different telecommunications services, and ‘speed’ is not as important for voice calls as it is for internet services, initial limitations on mobile telephone services, such as cost and reliability, have declined over time, so that they are now a competitive alternative to fixed line telephone systems. Technology may (and probably will) close the speed gap between mobile and fixed line internet services over time.
Second, technology and innovation will be driven more and more by the demands of developing countries over time. In Asia, South America and Africa, there are large populations who are going to become richer over the next few decades. These populations have been ‘brought up’ on cheap mobile phones. In part, this is due to the lack of adequate fixed line infrastructure in many of these countries to serve as a base for fixed-line services such as ADSL. So there will be big profits to be made from mobile innovations that can serve these markets. While the mature markets of Europe and North America will still matter, I suspect the innovation focus will become more ‘mobile’ oriented.
Third, there is the simple difference in infrastructure cost and speed of roll out. And this drives (and is driven by) competition. As our current NBN experience shows, it can take a long time and a lot of money to roll out high speed fixed line networks. And often these networks are monopolies. In contrast, the speed of roll out of successive generations of faster mobile internet has been impressive. I will let others judge how much this is driven by the different technology and how much it is driven by competition. But from an economic perspective, competition matters for service quality over time and mobiles are the ‘competitive space’ for internet infrastructure.
This suggests that, in developed countries, a likely future will be a hybrid. Fixed lines will provide digital carriage services between mobile ‘base stations’. Of course, this is what happens already for mobile telephone networks. And it is what happens on universities (campus wireless rather than wired buildings). But this is a very different future to one where every household or office has a wall socket to provide internet services.
Of course, this all feeds into current NBN policy. An NBN policy is a lot like crystal ball gazing. Rolling out fibre to the home is ‘flexible’ in terms of fixed-line options. It can be upgraded over time and should provide high speed services for a long time. But it is also a ‘wall socket’ approach. It is a bet on the Phil Dobbie view of the world. If this view is wrong, and in 20 years fixed line internet services are viewed as dinosaurs compared to mobile services, then much of the NBN will be a GWE (great white elephant).