The mobile data explosion: All signs point upward

Mobile data usage in 2013 almost doubled year over year, says Cisco, and tiered pricing hasn't had the affect you'd expect

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.

To that end, total monthly share of bandwidth used by the top 1 percent of users was 52 percent of overall bandwidth in 2010; as of 2013, it was only 10 percent. What's more, since per-user consumption varies per month, that top 1 percent is actually made up of a revolving pool of customers, so it's more like 3.5 percent of the total.

Smart devices, HD video, and IPv6 all figure in too

Machine-to-machine connectivity -- another aspect of Cisco's definition of smart devices, which includes wearables -- is also supposed to make up a sizable amount of that traffic by 2018, to the tune of 2 billion connections. Cisco is pushing its "fog computing" concept as part of its vision of the Internet of things, so it comes as little surprise it'd touch on this as a predicted driver of future traffic.

Cisco's prediction for the biggest slice of mobile data usage isn't surprising: video. The top spot is already claimed by video, but by 2018 Cisco imagines both the raw percentage and total amount of data (11 of 15.9 exabytes) used for video will explode.

The increasing number of devices with HD displays means HD content consumption will ramp up to match, although it isn't clear in the report if the estimates factor in the effect of future-generation HD codecs (HEVC, VP9) or are based on the current generation of codecs (H.264, mainly). On the other hand, the growth of video consumption might offset gains derived from better codecs.

Another forward-looking stat, IPv6 adoption, anticipates that about half of all mobile devices and connections will be IPv6 by 2018. (Verizon Wireless has been one of the early adopters of IPv6 for mobile customers.) And one more data point ought to hearten Android fans: The data consumption ratios between Android and iOS devices is about even across the board at this point -- which has been true since early last year -- although the jury is still out on which of the two platforms is more monetizable.

This article, "The mobile data explosion: All signs point upward," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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