Global Mobile Data Traffic to Surpass 15 Exabytes Per Month by 2018

A recent report from Cisco predicts that global mobile data traffic, which hit 1.5 exabytes per month in 2013, will be 10 times as high by the end of 2018. Smartphones will drive the bulk of this traffic growth, but the Internet of Things will also play a role.

Cisco Systems' latest Visual Networking Index predicts that global mobile data traffic will exceed 15 exabytes per month in 2018 - 10 times the total reached at the end of 2013 and roughly 180 times the size of the entire global Internet in 2000. The 2013 global mobile traffic data total, 1.5EB, represents an 81 percent increase over 2012's 820 petabytes per month.

Smartphones accounted for 77 percent of the 526 million mobile devices and connections added in 2013. The number of tablets in use increased to 92 million, as did data traffic (more than 1.3GB per month, per tablet); tablets will represent about one-sixth of mobile data traffic by 2018, Cisco says.

Meanwhile, 149 million laptops generated 2.45GB apiece and 2 million wearable devices each generated 1.7PB. All in all, sometime in 2014 the number of mobile-connected devices will surpass the world's population by 2014, Cisco says.

Smartphones Will Dominate, But Don't Neglect Internet of Things

"Our findings continue to highlight trends around the pervasiveness and continuing demand for mobile connectivity and services," says Thomas Barnett, marketing director for the Cisco Service Provider program. At the end of 2013, more than 4 billion people were mobile users, Barnett says. That number will grow to 5 billion by 2018. By then, the average mobile connection speed will have surpassed 2Mbps, Cisco says.

"These numbers really speak to the pervasive nature of mobile technology," Barnett says. "This trend is particularly relevant in emerging markets where the mobile Internet may be some users' only connection to the Internet."

Tuong Huy Nguyen, consumer technology and markets analyst at Gartner, says smartphone will represent 85 percent of all phones sales by 2017. But the question on mobile data traffic is tricky, he says, because a growing number of connected devices contribute to the data mix - machine-to-machine (M2M) connections are one factor, as is wearable technology such as watches, jewelry, fitness bands and health monitoring devices.

[ Related: Wearable Tech Offers Promise, Peril for the Enterprise ]

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show CES, Nguyen says he saw home monitoring and security solutions coming to market "much more significantly than in the past." There's also the Internet of Things, the network of objects that use embedded tech to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or external environment. "In the short term, I believe smartphones will still be driving a significant amount of data traffic," Nguyen says, "but this will evolve as the aforementioned technologies mature and become increasingly mainstream."

Barnett adds that the BYOD phenomenon will continue without slowing down. New types, shapes and sizes of mobile devices will be adopted on corporate network, although there will be a transformation of other mobile device forms. In response to slow growth in adoption, particularly in Western Europe and North America, many laptops are adding features and functions similar to tablets in order to stay competitive.

Transitioning Trends: Faster Networks, M2M Connections

Change in devices, as well as the different options consumers and business users have for devices, will challenge IT managers and CIOs in terms of access, authentication and authorization to use VPN services and content.

"As we look forward, the mobile device mix will get smarter and continue to drive the majority of mobile data traffic," Barnett says, adding that networks are increasingly making the transition to 4G and that M2M connections are joining personal devices on these more robust networks. (Cisco expects 4G traffic to make up more than half of total mobile traffic by 2018.)

M2M devices matter because they enable awareness, Forrester analyst Michele Pelino says. These devices, which range from RFID tags to GPS chips to sensors of all types, "capture information that helps businesses implement solutions to improve operations." This helps CIOs implement "smart computing solutions," she says, which in turn improves decision making and optimizes operational processes.

Meanwhile, Pelino adds, various types of networks - including wired lines, cellular wireless, licensed radio networks and satellite - will enable more Internet of Things solutions. Many telecom service providers have deployed IP networks at a national and international level; combined with ubiquitous availability of 3G wireless networks in mature markets, IoT solution deployment is possible, she says.

[ Cisco: Programmable Networks Will Power 'Internet of Everything' ][ Analysis: Beyond the 'Internet of Things' Hype At Mobile World Congress ]

Each network type offers unique characteristics related to security issues, installation costs, and reliability, Pelino says. For example, wireless LAN and Zigbee solutions are ideal for supply chain applications, while wide-area-wireless network solutions are better suited for supporting real-time fleet management and monitoring mobile assets, including ship containers and railroad cars. (For its part, Cisco expects more traffic to be offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks than to remain on cellular networks by 2018.)

Nguyen says the underlying question centers on cellular technology upgrading trends. "Operators will continue to look for the most efficient networks to migrate subscribers to. The obvious answer seems to be 'go with the most recent,' but this really depends on a number of factors, including costs, demand, and spectrum availability."

In mature markets such as North America, Nguyen says, there's an aggressive move toward long-term evolution (LTE) networks, partly because this market has gradually transitioned through each generation of tech. Subscriber spend-and-usage patterns have encouraged operators to continue building next-generation infrastructure, and the spectrum has been made available.

[ FAQ: How is LTE-Advanced Different From Regular LTE? ][ Also: The Case for LTE: 4 Reasons Why You Need 4G ]

In emerging markets such as Latin America, though, some 3G networks are still relatively new; the cost to upgrade to 4G, at least on a widespread basis, is not yet justifiable. In addition, many Latin America countries either have limited spectrum availability, with rules in place restricting incumbent bidding), or haven't been as aggressive with 4G auctions. In these markets, Nguyen says, 3G will continue to be the focus and emphasis despite the efficiencies that 4G has and promises to bring with future releases.

Apps, Video Dominance Mobile Data Traffic

Video and file transfers such as images and downloads largely drive mobile device traffic, says Forrester analyst Julie A. Ask. Messaging and Internet usage, on the other hand, are "light."

Cisco's data supports this. Though smartphones represent only 27 percent of total global handsets in use, they were responsible for 95 percent of the total global handset traffic, generated 48 times more monthly mobile data traffic (529MB per device) than basic-feature cellphones (11MB).

Any device that can consume media, especially video, will continue to drive mobile traffic, Ask says. (Not surprisingly, Cisco says smartphones will reach 66 percent of mobile data traffic by 2018.) Consumers will upgrade to faster networks when they can afford the plans and devices, she says - and the faster the network, the more data that users will consume and pay for.

Barnett agrees, noting that video will account for more than two-thirds of mobile data traffic by 2018. Other than M2M, that's the highest growth rate of any mobile application category Cisco forecast. "We continue to see the mobile network serving multimedia demands for both business and consumer users as a means of having the same experience that we have from fixed networks," he says.

[ Related: More Than 40 Percent of YouTube Traffic Now From Mobile ][ Also: Free Public Wi-Fi Getting Faster to Meet Mobile Demands ]

Whether accessing our entertainment and communications from home or conducting business on a mobile device, consumers expect access to the same services and content, as well as a similar performance experience from mobile and fixed networks, Barnett says. While the primary types of mobile video today come from downloaded content, there's significant growth in real-time communications (think Skype and Facetime), as well as live streamed programming.

"As we have more powerful networks and more powerful devices, these types of applications and experiences become more readily available to us as an expanding global mobile community," Barnett says.

J.D. Sartain is a freelance journalist from Boston. You can reach her her via email or on Twitter @JDSartain. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about mobile apps in CIO's Mobile Apps Drilldown.

This story, "Global Mobile Data Traffic to Surpass 15 Exabytes Per Month by 2018" was originally published by CIO.

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