Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Has Changed Since 2000

A few statistics will illustrate just how much has changed in the global telecom business since 2000. Prior to the turn of the century, most lines in service used wires and carried voice.

By 2007, 74 percent of all lines in service used wireless access or carried data, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Mobile alone in 2007 accounted for 61 percent of all subscriptions while standard phone lines have dropped to 26 percent. And the change has come swiftly: in just seven years.

Mobile revenues now account for nearly half of all telecommunication revenues—41 percent in 2007—up from 22 percent 10 years earlier.

Along with the change in access methods and applications is the sheer number of connections. The total number of fixed, mobile and broadband subscriptions in the member nations of the OECD grew to 1.6 billion in 2007, compared to a population within the OECD nations of just over one billion inhabitants.

To put that in perspective, consider that there were seven access paths in use in 2007 for every access path in use in 1980. That includes broadband, wireless and voice connections.

To put those figures in even greater perspective, consider that the percentage of household budgets devoted to communication expenses has climbed only slightly over the last 10 years. In most OECD countries, households generally spend about 2.2 percent and 2.5 percent of household income on communications, year in and year out, though one can note a slow rise since 1998.

The big exception is Japan, where household spending on communications is close to seven percent of household income. That might be something to keep in mind when making cross-national comparisons. It is true that Japan has very-fast broadband and has pioneered any number of mobile application innovations.

But Japanese households spend very close to three times as much as U.S. households on their overall communications. That’s worth keeping in mind. It always is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between nations.

Generally speaking, though, OECD consumers have added seven new connections for every existing connection in 1980, while spending about the same percentage of their incomes on those services. That’s an obvious example of an explosion of productivity.

Much has changed in the Internet access realm as well. Broadband is now the dominant fixed access method in all OECD countries. In 2005, dial-up connections still accounted for 40 percent of fixed Internet connections but just two years later that percentage had fallen to 10 percent.

Also, while many criticize the industry for retarding innovation and behaving as “nasty monopolists,” prices have tended to fall for virtually all communication services on all platforms.

“Over the previous 18 years, residential users saw the real price of residential fixed-linephone service fall roughly one percent per year while business prices fell 2.5 percent per year,” the OECD says.

Mobile subscribers also benefitted from declining prices between 2006 and 2008. The average price of OECD “mobile baskets,” representing a number of calls and messages per year that normalizes features and prices, fell by 21 percent for low usage, 28 percent for medium usage and 32 percent for the heaviest users over the two-year period.

User voice behavior also has changed. The number of minutes of communication per mobile phone is increasing while the minutes on fixed networks are decreasing. In other words, the mobile is becoming for most people the primary voice device while the landline is a backup.

Some might argue that ultimately has implications for pricing. In some real ways, the mobile is the “premium” device and a landline represents a supplemental service. That probably means the value is such that consumers ultimately will think it should be priced as a backup service.

Data between 2005 and 2007 suggest people are making fewer domestic calls on the fixed network in most countries, OECD says. When people do use fixed networks they are increasingly making calls to users of mobile phones.

This trend is well highlighted by Austria where the introduction of flat-rate voice telephony on mobile networks has shifted calls away from the fixed-line network. Voice traffic on Telekom Austria’s fixed network fell 13.3 percent in 2007 as a result of the shift to mobile

There was an OECD monthly average of 272 minutes of outgoing calls on fixed line telephones in 2007. This is down 32 minutes per month from 2005.

But there was an interesting landline rebound trend appearing recently in a number of OECD countries.

The number of PSTN minutes per line declined until 2005 when the numbers started rising again. For example, French minutes per PSTN line fell until 2004 when they started to increase.

One explanation is the shift in France to flat-rate national calls offered by a number of carriers. That suggests U.S. landline voice providers might stem some of the traffic erosion by offering aggressive, flat-rate, all-distance services within the domestic market, as VoIP providers generally do.

On the mobile side, the OECD average number of outgoing minutes of completed calls on mobile networks was 220 minutes per month in 2007, up 56 percent from 2005.

Subscribers in the United States make far more outgoing calls on mobile phones each month than any other country in the OECD. The average number of minutes per mobile subscription was 443 in 2007, more than double the OECD average. One might argue that is because of the reasonable cost of calling great distances. In Europe, many calls that would be domestic in the United States are international calls.

Broadband prices have fallen as well over the same time. OECD broadband prices declined significantly over the previous three years. Prices declined an average of 14 percent per year for DSL and 15 percent for cable between 2005 and 2008.

The average price of a low-speed connection (2 megabits per second or less downstream) was $32 per month in September 2008. At the other end of the scale, broadband connections with download speeds advertised as faster than 30 megabits per second averaged $45 per month.

Despite the falling price-per-unit trends, telecommunications services, about a trillion dollar market in the OECD, continues to grow at about a six-percent annual rate. That remains to be tested as we finish 2009, but there is reasonable historic precedent for continued growth, though perhaps not at a six-percent rate.

Regarding voice and new mobile and data services, we might as well note that landline voice appears to be a product like any other. That is to say, like any other product, it has a product life cycle.

To be specific, wireline voice looks like a product in its declining phase. Optical fiber-based broadband looks like a product earlier in its cycle, with 56 percent compound annual growth since 2005.

Digital subscriber line and cable modem services likely are further along their curves. DSL grew at a compounded rate of 21 percent per year while cable modem service grew at 18 percent rates between 2005 and 2007.

Mobile voice markets grew by 10 percent each year since 2005 but may be nearing saturation levels in a number of OECD markets. Mobile broadband clearly is early in its product life cycle.

Analog lines, used for voice, facsimile and dial-up Internet access, also seem to be in decline. The number of analog subscribers fell by 34 million between 2005 and 2007.

The decline of Internet dial-up services also means that many households no longer need a second analog line. The same might be true for in-home fax machines. And many additional lines once used by teenagers now have been replaced by mobiles.

Finally, the number of “mobile-only” subscribers has increased as well.

The penetration rate for fixed telephone lines (analog and ISDN) in 2007 was 41 subscribers per 100 inhabitants, which was less than the penetration rate ten years earlier.

Overall, the penetration rate rose from 43 percent in 1996 to a maximum of 47 percent in 2000, only to decline again to 41 percent in 2007. The year 2000 appears to be the turning point in the technological life cycle of fixed-line telephony.

Canada had the highest fixed-line penetration in 2007 with a penetration rate of 54 subscribers for every 100 inhabitants. Sweden, Luxembourg and the United States all

had penetration rates greater than 50 per 100 inhabitants. Mexico, the Slovak Republic and Poland had the lowest penetration rates in 2007.

There’s an interesting observation we can make about those figures. Nobody seems to argue that the United States has a big problem with voice service availability. In fact, availability is not the issue: consumer demand is the issue. One doesn’t hear people complaining about the lack of voice availability in Canada or Sweden. But penetration is in the 50 percent range, per capita.

Nearly all Internet users in the United States use broadband, not dial-up. And yet broadband penetration might well be higher than voice penetration, on that score. People who want the product generally buy it.

That said, there are some methodological issues here. “Per capita” measures might not make as much sense, as a comparative tool, when median household sizes vary. Adoption by households, adjusted to include people who use the Internet only at work or at public locations, or using mobiles, would be better.

Broadband adoption, by people who actually use the Internet, might make the most sense of all. Broadband is a product like any other. Not every consumer values every product to the same degree.

DSL network coverage is greater than 90 percent in 22 of the 30 OECD countries. Belgium, Korea, Luxembourg and the Netherlands report 100 percent.

Cable coverage is extensive in some countries such as the United States (96 percent) and Luxembourg (70 percent), but non-existent in others such as Greece, Iceland and Italy.

An analysis which followed the evolution of broadband plans over four years shows that speeds increased by 28 percent for DSL and 72 percent for cable on average between 2007 and 2008.

A survey of 613 broadband offers covering all OECD countries shows the average advertised speed grew between 2007 and 2008 across all platforms except for fiber. The average advertised DSL speed increased 25 percent from 9.3 Mbps in 2007 to 11.5 Mbps in 2008.

Advertised speed of course is not user-experienced speed at all times of day. Still, it offers some measure of changes in the product.

The average advertised fiber speed actually declined between 2007 and 2008 as operators introduced new entry-level offers at speeds below 100 Mbps.

For example, Dansk Broadband in Denmark offers symmetric broadband offers over fiber at speeds between 512 kbps and 100 Mbps.

The average fixed wireless offer in 2008 was 3 Mbps, up from 1.8 Mbps just a year earlier.

Fixed wireless speeds grew by 64 percent but remain only one-quarter of the average advertised speeds of DSL providers. The average cable offer is five times faster.

There are some insights about mobile broadband in the OECD’s analysis. The amount of data traffic carried over mobile networks remains small in relation to other broadband data networks.

For example, Telstra in Australia reported in a 2008 investor briefing that data consumption increased from 100 kilobytes per month per user in 2007 to 250 kilobytes in 2008. Compare that to the gigabytes consumed on landline connections.

Data from the Netherlands also show relatively low data traffic in the first half of 2008.

Between January and June 2008, Dutch mobile broadband subscribers downloaded 358 gigabytes over mobile networks.

It is possible to calculate an estimate of mobile data traffic per 3G subscriber per month in the Netherlands by making a few assumptions. If the ratio of 3G to total mobile subscriptions in the Netherlands is equivalent to the OECD average of 18 percent, then the average amount of data traffic per 3G subscription per month in the Netherlands works out to be only 18 kilobytes per month.

Of 52 mobile broadband packages evaluated in September 2008, the average headline speed was 2.5 Mbps. Subscribers to these plans were allowed an average of 4.5 gigabytes of data traffic per month.

Much has changed in the global telecommunications business in just seven years. Landline voice might still provide the revenue mainstay, but it is a product in the declining stages of its life cycle.

Even mobile voice, DSL and cable modem service are products at something like the peak of their cycles.
Mobile broadband and optical fiber access are early in their product life cycles. Mobility is becoming the preferred way of consuming voice communications.

That’s an awful lot of change in just seven years. And we haven’t even discussed VoIP, over-the-top applications, content or video.

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