Here's a number for you: 1.5 exabytes. That's how much worldwide mobile data traffic was generated each month in 2013, according to Cisco -- a leap of 81 percent over 2012.
The report has even more intriguing observations about our mobile network consumption habits here and now, and not just in the future.
The smarter the device, the more bandwidth needed
Cisco's numbers have just been published in a new whitepaper, the (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, which takes current trends in mobile devices and networks and extrapolates them through 2018. Some of those extrapolations are debatable -- it's always a potshot to project four to five years ahead -- but the immediate trends are eye-opening.
Cisco attributes the explosion in data use to the proliferation of what it calls "smart devices," namely "[devices] having advanced computing and multimedia capabilities with a minimum of 3G connectivity." By 2018, claims Cisco, 93 percent of mobile devices in use will fit those criteria.
Another major variable is the variety of the connection involved, with 3G, 4G, and LTE data connections being prime movers. Interestingly, the report suggests that 4G and beyond won't grow at the expense of 3G; rather, the two will grow in concert well into 2018, with 3G ferrying an estimated 59 percent of total traffic and 4G carrying 15 percent. The difference is that 4G will carry the majority of the connections and data. Meanwhile, 2G data is believed to be the biggest loser of the bunch, dropping from 68 percent of traffic today down to 25 percent in 2018.
Tiered plans don't slow down users
The most intriguing tidbit served up by the report, as far as current mobile network traffic stats go, is the effect of tiered pricing plans on mobile data use. Cisco claims tiered plans, which have become the majority of plans offered by mobile carriers, have "not constrained usage patterns." Rather, they've "[narrowed] the bandwidth consumption gap between tiered and unlimited data plan connections."
In other words, the usage share of the bottom 99 percent of mobile users is growing faster than the top 1 percent. The precise mechanism for this remains unclear; it might be the fact that the lowest available tier of data service has its cap set high enough now that people are inclined to simply use as much of it as they can.