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Cisco: Our Mobile Data Appetite Doubled in Size in 2012 (and It's Getting Bigger)


Competitive eating in Bettendorf, Iowa for the World Maid-Rite Sandwich Eating Championship

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Competitive eating in Bettendorf, Iowa for the World Maid-Rite Sandwich Eating Championship

Globally, the average mobile user consumed 201 MBs of data a month in 2012, more than doubling the 92 MBs monthly average of 2011, according to Cisco Systems’ new Visual Networking Index (VNI) for mobile traffic.

That may not seem like a huge amount, but it’s spread out over the entire world’s population, including places where 3G connections are still rare and smartphone uptake negligible. When broken down by region, the numbers really pop. Cisco (CSCO) found the typical North American accounted for 752 MBs a month, while Western Europeans ate up a monthly average of 491 MBs.

In total, devices with mobile connections generated 900 petabytes of traffic (a petabyte being 1 million GBs) each month in 2012. And we ain’t seen nothing yet. Cisco is projecting global mobile traffic will grow at a compounded annual rate of 66 percent for the next five years, doubling 13 times by 2017. This year, monthly mobile traffic will enter the exabyte era (an exabyte being 1 billion GBs). By 2017 global mobile users will eat up 11.2 EBs each month, according to the VNI.

Cisco is tracking the culmination of many trends. Not only is the number of smartphones and tablets increasing, but more devices, from cameras to cars, are getting connected. The average data usage per device is on the rise, but so is the total number of connected devices each person owns.

The result is an explosion of mobile data consumption across an explosion of new devices—even if the number of actual subscribers is increasing only incrementally. There are 4.3 billion mobile subscribers today, by Cisco’s estimates. We’ll add less than a billion to that figure by 2017.

In that year, the average global consumer will be responsible for 2 GB each month, but North America will go for extra helpings at the mobile broadband buffet. Cisco predicts that the average U.S. or Canadian subscriber will account for 6.2 GBs of consumption each month, spread out over multiple devices. Western European usage will be nearly half that number.

The average Asian consumer will fall below the 2 GB mark, but the continent will make up plenty of ground in sheer volume of users. In 2017, Asia will have 2.8 billion people hooked into the mobile Internet, using a total of 5.2 billion connected devices. In North America only 316 million subscribers will sport 841 million individual connections. Despite their data-heavy diets, American and Canadians will account for only 19 percent of global mobile traffic, while Asia will consume nearly half.

Not all that traffic will traverse cellular networks. Cisco counts mobile traffic offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks or carrier femtocells in its calculations, though it doesn’t count Wi-Fi-only devices such as a tablet without 3G/4G radio. According to Cisco’s calculations, 33 percent of all mobile device traffic never reached a cell tower and was shunted into an access point or femtocell instead.

By 2017, Cisco expects Wi-Fi and femtos to handle nearly half of all mobile traffic. For data-centric devices such as tablets, the number will be as high as 71 percent. North America is already well ahead in the offload curve. About 47 percent of our region’s mobile bits traversed local area networks in 2012.

Cisco compiles its numbers through a combination of multiple independent analyst reports, direct measurements from its speed-test apps, and metrics it collects from its operator customers. Because Cisco has a vested interest in selling hardware that pushes packets through the mobile Internet, its VNI has faced criticism in the past, particularly as carriers use Cisco’s projections to justify their spectrum acquisition sprees.

For the past five years, Cisco has revised VNI projections each year to account for new variables and the previous years recorded measurements. Last year it revised its projections upward, finding its 2011 analysis too conservative. This year Cisco lowered its projections downward slightly. Cisco analysts said new tiered plans in North America and Europe applied the brakes to average consumption, especially in Europe where there is a high concentration of 3G/4G connected laptops.

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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