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Thursday, 11 January 2007 13:11

Interest in mobile Internet greatly outstrips use

Ericsson has just released the results of its 2006 Australian Consumer Lab survey, a project that's been running here since 1999. With a sample of 2000 people drawn from metropolitan residents aged 15 to 64, you'd expect it to be pretty representative.

Surveys are always interesting, but you've got to keep in mind who sponsored them. Even then, some results are hard to believe.

41 percent of respondents agreed that "it is important to me to be able to access the internet wherever I am," up from 27 percent in 2004. However, only 21 percent of mobile users actually use their device to browse the Internet and an even smaller proportion use services such as email when they're on the move.

Frankly, I find that 21 percent hard to swallow. Although I associate mainly with technophiles, my impression is that fewer than one in ten use the Internet from mobile devices. But Ericsson has done a survey and I haven't, so let's stick with their figures.

What seems interesting is the big gap between interest and usage. Three explanations come to mind: it can't be done with people's current devices, it's too difficult, or it's too expensive.

There are a *lot* of cheap phones without Internet capability in circulation, but since phones are apparently replaced on average every 12-18 months, that barrier should go away over time. Indeed, Ericsson's finding that usage has gone from 4 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2006 is broadly consistent with this observation - people who were only 'interested' in 2004 have had time to buy a more capable phone.

Not being able to use anything other than the most basic functions of your mobile phone is the 21st century equivalent of a VCR flashing "12:00". If you're really interested in using the Internet on your mobile, you'll find out how to do it. If you can't be bothered, you weren't that interested in the first place.

So that leaves price, which to my mind is the biggest barrier. Having already spent $20-$80 or more on a broadband connection at home, and maybe $50-$100 on mobile calls, how much more are people expected to spend on mobile Internet?

On one hand, there's little provision for dipping a toe in the water - for example, I'm not aware of any cap plans that include Internet access (though I might not have looked hard enough), and you generally have to sigh up for separate "data packs". Admittedly, some of those packs start at very modest prices.

And on the other, there's the ever-present risk of excess charges: if 15 cents per excess megabyte on a low-end fixed broadband deal is scary, what do you make of $2.60 per excess megabyte on a phone-based plan?

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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