Another day, another prediction that mobile data traffic will shoot through the roof in the next few years. We’ve heard these alarming forecasts many times before but a recent report from Cisco is positively scary. It predicts mobile data traffic will increase by 78 per cent a year from 2012 and that by 2016 the annual amount of mobile data traffic will be 130 exabytes which is equal to 33 billion DVDs or 4.3 quadrillion music files or 813 quintillion text messages.
The report begs two question: Are such predictions of soaring mobile data demands realistic? And, if they are, are telecommunication providers, and even communications vendors, ready to meet them?
Firstly, Cisco's forecast isn't unreal. it is in line with what analysts around the world are predicting.
Gartner expects that mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual rate of 91 per cent a year for the next five years.
In addition to increased use of connected laptops and more people than ever having access to mobile data networks, Gartner enterprise mobility research director, Song Chuang, attributed the migration towards smartphones and increase in sales of media tablets as the main contributors to the explosion of mobile data.
“The IT industry as a whole is a driver for all this demand as more and more applications get mobilised, so I don’t foresee any slow down occurring,” Chuang said.
Increased interest by consumers in “data hungry” mobile apps, such as the Youtube video streaming service, are also putting a strain on data networks.
In line with the consumer trend, businesses are also expected to follow the same path of increased mobile data consumption.
“The proliferation of mobile devices for work will likely lead to even more investment in mobile apps for B2E, B2C, and B2B, which will lead to more demand for mobile data in a self reinforcing way,” Chuang said.
While growth of mobile content consumption will obviously translate to new business opportunities for those involved in the mobile space, there is still a big question mark looming whether the network infrastructure and providers can keep up with this growth.
“They need a roadmap for controlling the traffic explosion in a planned way,” Chuang said.
Wi-Fi offloading is an option to control cost and manage capacity.
That is something communication vendors such as Ruckus Wireless have been looking into.
Wi-Fi offloading has been tipped to play a big role in alleviating strains placed on mobile data networks due to growing demands.
Another way telecommunication providers are tacking the alarming growth rate of mobile data is the implementation of 4G networks.
Telstra has already released its 4G LTE service in selected areas. Optus is slated to follow suit this year.
LTE offers faster data transfer rates across longer distances and has been flogged as an effective solution for the data explosion the world is experiencing. Only time will tell how well LTE weighs up against skyrocketing mobile data traffic.
But either way, ICT123 CEO, Ben O’Leary said he is confident that Telstra will be able to meet the expected increase in demand. His company has been a long-time reseller of the telco’s services.
“Telstra is at the forefront and has always been a step ahead of the bandwidth demands,” he said.
“I’m not hearing from any of our dealers that their customers are experiencing undue stress at the moment in terms of demand for bandwidth.”
The demand for mobile devices is phenomenal, O’Leary agrees, as is the persistence of the technology – he pointed to Facebook being something people use for ‘hundreds’ of different purposes.
That persistence and demand will drive down the cost of technology and bandwidth in turn, he said, further easing any strains organisations may be feeling in meeting their data needs.
Bigger slice of the pie
When looking towards 2016, when an estimated 10 billion mobile devices will be connecting to the Internet for a combined annual data traffic of 130 exabytes, Gartner is cautiously optimistic about the IT industry meeting mobile data demands.
“We don’t see a problem per se,” Chuang said. “The question is how communications service providers and enterprises will be able to strategise and get a bigger slice of the pie.”
While nations with moderate smartphone install bases have shown an ability to keep up with mobile data consumption trends, Frost and Sullivan ICT research industry manager, Marc Einstein, is concerned that mobile operator infrastructure in countries where there are a lot of devices, such as the US and Australia, are already becoming stretched thin.
In particular, Einstein points out that mobile networks in the US are seemingly unable to cope with the current 50 per cent smartphone penetration rate.
“Think about what is going to be like in three years when smartphone penetration is at 100 per cent,” he said.
With Australia already boasting a higher smartphone penetration rate than either the US and Japan, there is a concern that a continued and unchecked growth in smartphone connections to networks might have dire consequences on accessibility and connection speeds.
While moving to new network technologies such as 4G is expected to help the situation, it is not a be all and end all solution and Einstein expects that service providers will take further measures, including shutting off older networks such as 2G, to balance out the workload.
“Telcos will have to deal with pretty expensive equipment for 4G peripheral for quite a while,” he said.
“Utilising fibre [networks] as much as possible makes a lot of sense given radio spectrum is a finite asset.”