A new report on consumer broadband service from the Federal Communications Commission suggests the quality of mobile broadband service lags growing demand.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made expanding mobile broadband capacity a key goal of the agency's national broadband plan.
The study examining broadband performance in the U.S. overall notes that typical speeds for mobile data are the equivalent of wired Internet connections five to 10 years ago. As more people upgrade to faster service, mobile broadband speeds could increase at a similar rate to the desktop Web.
Adoption of 3G and 4G technologies by wireless operators is helping to drive that trend. The report estimates that 3G coverage is now available to 98% of the U.S. population, but that 3G speeds often aren't as fast as advertised.
"Similar to fixed broadband, the actual speeds that consumers experience with mobile broadband can be significantly lower than the advertised speeds. One study finds that actual speeds can be a quarter of the speeds advertised," the FCC report stated. It concludes actual 4G speeds will also vary from advertised average and peak speeds.
When it comes to consumer usage, the FCC said the mobile Web is still well behind the PC-based Internet but growing fast. As of late 2009, for example, the average mobile broadband user with a large-screen smartphone spent 38 minutes per day online, which is about half the time of a wired broadband session.
While smartphones are driving much mobile data use, even more is coming from wireless data cards in connected devices like laptops, netbooks and tablet computers. Wireless 3G and 4G cards account for about three quarters of mobile data consumption with the balance coming from phones and wireless-enabled devices, according to the FCC.
The report projected overall mobile data use will continue to grow at a 40% to 100% rate over the next five years after doubling between 2008 and 2009. That pattern would parallel the growth of fixed broadband and mobile voice in the mid- and late-1990s. "While it is too early to see if mobile broadband usage will taper off, the historical experience of fixed broadband would imply that high growth could continue for some time, the report stated.
The FCC also reiterated carrier claims that a small percentage of users are responsible for a large amount of data consumptions, similar to the wired Web. AT&T emphasized that phenomenon as a rational for introducing tiered pricing for mobile data in June.