Mobile Data Growth Set To Swallow Up 4G Capacity Within Five Years

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Current 4G networks could struggle to deal with the huge projected increase in mobile data traffic in the next five years

A Cisco report has forecast a huge rise in mobile data traffic around the world, which could swallow the extra capacity brought around by 4G networks.

The report, Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2011–2016 revealed some interesting projections and forecasts for the next five years.

Growth forecasts

Cisco noted that global mobile data traffic grew 2.3-fold in 2011, more than doubling for the fourth year in a row by rising 133 percent. To put this growth into context, the mobile data traffic in 2011 was eight times the size of the entire global Internet back in 2000.

It also appears that video is playing a large part in this growth, as mobile video traffic exceeded 50 percent for the first time in 2011. This ties into previous findings from Ericsson late last year.

The report also highlights the fact that mobile operators are not sitting still, as the world begins to transition from 3G-based networks to 4G networks. Cisco found that mobile network connection speeds rose 66 percent in 2011, with the average mobile network downstream speed in 2011 being 315 kilobits per second (kbps), up from 189kbps in 2010.

It also found that in 2011 a fourth-generation (4G) connection generated 28 times more traffic on average than a non-4G connection. Although 4G connections represent only 0.2 percent of mobile connections today, they already account for six percent of mobile data traffic.

And it seems that smartphones are to blame for generating most of mobile data traffic. Smartphones represent only 12 percent of total global handsets in use today, but they represent over 82 percent of total global handset traffic.

Five year outlook

Looking ahead, Cisco issued some stark predictions and forecasts for the next five years through to 2016. Worldwide mobile data traffic is expected to increase 18-fold in the coming five years, it said, to an annual rate of 130 exabytes – the equivalent of 4.3 quadrillion digital songs, or about 813 quadrillion text messages.

Apparently, mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 78 percent from 2011 to 2016, reaching 10.8 exabytes (per month) by 2016. This year, over 100 million smartphone users will reach the “gigabyte club”, whereby they consume over one gigabyte of mobile data per month, Cisco predicts.

The company also expects a massive rise in the number of connected devices, and believes that the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2012.

Delayed 4G spectrum

Given the above predictions, the arrival of 4G networks cannot come soon enough. For some years now many mobile networks have been groaning under the data strain, as GSM-based mobile networks are designed primarily to carry voice, not data.

This has led some to predict that this huge rise in mobile data will see mobile operators forced to end the “unlimited data” deals, which some are still offering.

That said, most UK mobile network operators actually withdrew their true unlimited data plans in 2010 as their networks struggled to cope with the demand. However, operators such as 3UK have subsequently reintroduced unlimited data for a £3 supplement, while other networks such as T-Mobile and Orange now have fair usage policies.

Mobile operators, for their part, are hoping that the forthcoming 4G spectrum auctions, which were delayed yet again last year, will help resolve some of this capacity crunch. But while LTE networks should help matters, many believe they will not be the “silver bullet” solution to the problem.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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