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The Network Paradox Part I: Mobile Data Demand by the Numbers

Part one in four-part series about how networks will cope with the enormous mobile data demands placed with them in the future

Mobile data traffic is growing at an incredible clip—there’s no doubt about it. Vendors and analysts following the wireless space project North American mobile data volumes in 2014 at anywhere from 25 times to 50 times what we see on networks today. But what exactly do those numbers mean?

How and when will these enormous volumes of traffic hit operators’ networks? Will they expose their vulnerabilities? How will operators scale those networks to meet that demand?

As part of our larger interactive-feature, the Mobile Data Paradox, Connected Planet is exploring the impact of the mobile data deluge in a series of four features. In these stories, we’ll examine how future networks will be built and current networks redesigned to meet those traffic needs? And we’ll attempt to get an idea of the costs in building those networks as well as how they’ll increase the energy footprint of the wireless industry.

But for the first story in the series, we’re establishing a baseline to work with. Just how much will data traffic grow?

The most often cited numbers for traffic growth come from Cisco Systems’ (NASDAQ:CSCO) Visual Network Index, an aggregation of third-party research and analytical studies coupled with data drawn from Cisco’s own global customer base. Cisco’s VNI projections are, if anything conservative, according to Douglas Webster, Cisco senior director of service provider marketing. But the growth numbers the index spits out are still shocking.

The VNI anticipates mobile data traffic to increase 39 times globally between 2009 and 2014. That’s an annual compounded average growth rate of 108%. In 2014, wireless networks will transmit 3.6 exabytes (the equivalent of 1 million terabytes) each month. Those networks will link 5 billion personal mobile devices and billions more machine-to-machine devices, as the global mobile industry exceeds 100% penetration. More than 400 million of those subscribers will use mobile networks and devices as their sole means of accessing the Internet and many of them will have never used a browser connected to the Web via a wire.

Those numbers may seem extraordinary, but Webster points to data that individual operators have already made public. “O2 claims their traffic doubled every three months last year,” Webster said. “We’re seeing a lot of operators that are having more than 100% growth.” In a three- year period after the launch of the iPhone 3G, AT&T saw a 5000% increase in mobile data traffic. For many operators, 30x or 40x growth in mobile data over four years would actually be sluggish compared the skyrocketing demands they’ve faced in the last year or two.

Many global operators haven’t yet seen the huge surges in mobile data demand brought on by smartphones and mobile broadband. Much of the developing world is still in the process of deploying 3G, which means much of the growth in the next four years will be taking place in places other than North America, Europe and East Asia. Cisco projects India’s mobile data growth will be nearly 10 times larger than the world average.

But while those developing markets will grow very quickly they’re also starting from a much lower 2G baseline. Europe and the US have spent the last few years filling their mobile data pipes, but given the launch of 4G networks, new bandwidth-intensive applications and more compelling devices like new 3G tablets coming to market, demands on western networks will continue to increase considerably. Cisco’s VNI estimates North America wireless networks will experience 49-fold traffic increase between 2009 and 2014. Not only is the US going to grow faster than the global average, that growth will piled on top of the already substantial traffic resulting from smartphones and mobile broadband connections today.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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