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The mobile data traffic crunch

Recently, The New York Times measured the mix of advertising and editorial content on the mobile home pages of the top 50 news websites, their own included. What did they discover?

That more than half of all data came from ads (as well other content filtered by ad blockers). Examining the seconds needed for sites to load, they found that large photos and video ads were typically the main culprits of data consumption. Yet it was Boston.com’s mobile site that topped the list, with mobile website ads averaging 30 seconds to load on a typical 4G connection. As the adage goes, time is money. The estimated equivalent of 32 cents—in ads alone—per home page visit over the course of a month could ring up charges of approximately $9.50 in data usage just for advertising.

iPhone car image ()

According to some, ads are just part of an increasingly complex and burdensome jumble of content within mobile data traffic. Currently, consumer and business appetites for mobile data are growing quickly and rapaciously, causing providers to struggle to deliver enough bandwidth. The resulting slow downloads and other manifestations of poor user experience are generating a lot of excitement—and anxious anticipation—for the next generation of mobile networks. 5G is promising to be more than 1,000 times faster the current 4G LTE standard.  

This is not news, especially to those who work in the trenches of IT. But The New York Times article delivers a potent reminder to the rest of us. The bottleneck is here now and it’s threatening to overtake the incoming infrastructure before it’s even in place. 

Mobile devices ()

The pervasiveness of the mobile phone—and smartphones—cannot be overstated. A recent report from the Pew Research Center finds that 72 per cent of adults in the US own a smartphone. In the UK, the figure is 68 per cent. Today, even in the developing world eight in 10 people now own a mobile phone. According to a the GSMA mobile operator trade association, there were more than 3.6 billion unique mobile subscribers and more than seven billion mobile connections globally at the end of 2015 (They define mobile Internet devices to include smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices that provide mobile connectivity to the Internet through mobile network providers).

Exabytes will be the new petabytes

Ready to embrace colossal numbers? At the end of 2015, mobile data traffic in the United States reached 500 petabytes per month. For context, in real terms, according to futurist Raymond Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, the memories of 800 human beings would fit into one petabyte. While many bemoan the slow rate of cellular data moving across the network now, consider mobile data traffic predicted for 2020. In the United States, mobile data traffic will grow six-fold from 2015 to 2020, a compound annual growth rate of 42 per cent.

What does this represent as a measure of data? Mobile data traffic will reach 2.9 exabytes per month by 2020. Each exabyte (1018 or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) is equal to one billion gigabytes and each month that data would require the estimated equivalent of 725 million DVDs to store it.

2020 is not that far off. The rapid growth various content platforms is, and will continue to be, pushing the exponential rise in data demand in tandem with the expansion of mobile internet access. This includes, in addition to ads, livestreaming, high bandwidth apps, the emergence of Ultra HD— with four times the resolution of HD video at double the bitrates—and the adoption of VR.

This is just a starting point. Now let’s factor the predicted rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) into the mix. With ever increasing sophistication, IoT will also have an expanding role to play in mobile data consumption. According to Gartner, IoT will grow to 21 billion devices by 2020 and be a US $3 trillion a year industry.

Connected devices ()

While many might look to the enhancements 5G will bring to existing mobiles phones use, Intel, Ericsson and Cisco among others companies had different ideas. They are looking to 5G's ability to support the ongoing development and growth of the IoT. It’s important to keep in mind the expected evolution of IoT, from low bandwidth sensor networks in place today to high bandwidth applications, supporting a spectrum of consumer electronics that are on the horizon. This includes smart homes and offices, wearables, gaming, telehealth, industrial automation and big data analytics. 

Back to the Future

5G is a hot topic. Yet it’s increasingly clear that it won’t likely be the silver bullet for explosive growth of mobile data traffic. The clear leader in this network development race is SK Telecom, of South Korea, mobilizing to be the world’s first operator of a 5G network, by 2018. The U.S., formerly the trailblazer, is trying to keep up, yet carriers such as T-Mobile and Verizon most likely won’t have truly viable network coverage until 2020.

The New York Times article shines a light on the tension that will continue to grow between service providers, content providers and consumers. The strain of mobile data traffic has already prompted service providers to yank unlimited data plans or cap them because they are unprofitable. Yet with the growing role mobile networks plays in our lives—like electricity—you might not see it, but there’s no way to live without it.

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