The explosive growth of mobile broadband is, as the National Broadband Plan noted, the result of the convergence of two big trends that started separately: digital computing and wireless communications. At first, computers were stand-alone devices dedicated to data processing tasks. Then they got connected. The benefits of linking computers together led to all sorts of new uses ranging from email and time-sharing to e-commerce and social networking. The invention of the World Wide Web and search engines like Google simplified the process of getting online and finding useful resources. The advent of high-speed broadband networks provided access to rich media like music, photos and video. The world became increasingly digital.
In parallel, the introduction of mobile phones expanded phone service from fixed locations to anywhere there was a wireless signal. The first mobile phones, introduced in the 1980s were bulky and expensive and just supported voice communications. As handsets got smaller, more versatile and more affordable, personal phone ownership spread from business executives to young people to nearly everyone. Today, there are 111 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 American citizens (which means that the U.S. ranks 48th in the world in penetration, just below Zimbabwe and just above Jordan). As mobile phones became more popular, they began to replace landlines, and by 2015, nearly half of all U.S. households had become wireless-only, up from just four percent of households in 2003.
The introduction of smartphones in the 1990s marked the beginning of a true convergence between phones and computers. Today, more than 80 percent of mobile phones in the U.S. are smartphones, and there are nearly two billion smartphone users globally.
With the emergence of 4G networks, the distinction between wired and wireless networks for computer communications largely disappeared. For many, a smartphone is not only a substitute for a landline but for a computer. And even for many who own a computer, their phones have become their primary means for staying connected with, navigating through and conducting business in the world.
In fact, we are increasingly in a “mobile first” world. In 2015, for example, in ten countries, including the U.S. and Japan, more Google searches originated from mobile devices than from computers. Entire industries that had already “gone digital” in response to the rise of the Internet have had to refocus their strategies to give higher priority to the needs of mobile users.
In addition to the growth of mobile phone users, the emergence of new applications with new requirements, have helped to fuel the increase in demand for wireless connectivity—and are driving demand for higher performance networks (although each type of use places distinctive kinds of demands on networks):
Cell Phones in Daily Life
Americans, collectively, look at their smartphones eight billion times a day according to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Mobile Consumer Survey. Other findings from the survey document the extent to which smartphones have implicated themselves into our daily lives, literally from dawn to dusk:
- Close to half of all phone users (48 percent) check their phones at least 25 times per day, while 4 percent look at them more than 200 times a day.
- Nearly two thirds of American consumers (61 percent) sometimes, if not often, consult their phones when out shopping.
- Nearly half (47%) of consumers use their smartphones while talking to friends and family.
- Each morning, 43 percent of adults check their phone within five minutes of waking, while 17 percent check them “immediately after waking.”
- At bedtime, 33 percent of adults check their phone within five minutes before going to sleep, and 13 percent look at them “immediately before going to sleep.”
- Social media: As of January 2016, 934 million of Facebook’s 1.4 billion active monthly users accessed the service by a mobile device, and almost half of its users (823 million) were mobile-only. Fast growing messaging services like Snapchat, with 200 million users, Instagram, with over 400 million users, and WhatsApp, with more than one billion users worldwide, are entirely mobile apps. Increasingly, we expect to stay connected with others at any time and from any place.
- Mobile commerce: In 2015, nearly one-third of all e-commerce sales were mobile and were growing three times as fast as overall e-commerce sales. A service like Uber, which provides more than one million rides per month in more than 50 different countries, depends on a mobile app. Virtually every major bank now offers mobile banking, while smartphone-based point of sale payment systems are becoming increasingly common. Retailers have been working hard to develop apps that can track mobile users and offer them special deals depending on their location.
- Mobile video: The strongest single driver of mobile traffic growth is the increasing popularity of bandwidth-intensive video. More than half of video viewing on YouTube is mobile, and fully 65 percent of Facebook’s video views are now on mobile devices. Within four months of its launch in February 2015, the live streaming video app, Periscope, attracted 10 million mobile users who watched a total of 21 million minutes of video per day.
By the end of 2012, video content was responsible for half of total mobile data traffic and was projected to increase 13-fold between 2014 and 2019 when it will account for nearly three-quarters of all mobile data traffic. The growing popularity of HD video with its higher bandwidth requirements will further drive the growth in video traffic, while even newer applications like virtual reality (VR) will add to the demand for greater capacity
- The Internet of Things: First networks connected computers. Then they connected people. Now they are beginning to connect “things” of all sorts—appliances in homes, machines in factories, crops and animals on farms, cars on the road, etc. The Internet of Things promises to create smart homes, smart grids, smart cities that will be more efficient and better coordinated, saving time and energy while improving productivity. Within a decade, there will be millions and then billions of wirelessly connected things that can be monitored and controlled remotely and that will generate vast amounts of data that can be crunched to improve performance in new ways.
- The Cloud: As broadband access becomes more pervasive, it makes sense to augment the intelligence of local computing devices by connecting them with computing power and data repositories “in the cloud.” Access to cloud-based resources provides benefits to both businesses and consumers and has become an important driver of mobile data traffic. According to Cisco, cloud-based applications are already responsible for more than 80 percent of mobile data traffic, and are expected to account for 90 percent by 2019.
- Proliferation of smart wireless devices: Smart devices drive greater data traffic. While these devices represented just 26 percent of all mobile devices in use in 2014, they accounted for 88 percent of total mobile data traffic. In 2015, an average smartphone generated 41 times more traffic than a basic non-smart phone. Projections indicate that half of all mobile phone users worldwide will have a smartphone by 2018. Other connected devices, including tablets, wearables and portable computers, will generate even more traffic.
Taken together, these factors have resulted in steady, rapid growth of mobile data traffic. As reported by Cisco in the latest (2016) version of its Visual Networking Index:
- Mobile data traffic has grown 4,000-fold over the past 10 years. Mobile networks carried fewer than 10 gigabytes per month in 2000, and less than 1 petabyte per month in 2005, but were carrying 3.7 exabytes per month at the end of 2015. (One exabyte is equivalent to one billion gigabytes, and one thousand petabytes.)
- Global mobile data traffic will grow eightfold between 2015 and 2020, increasing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53 percent over this period, reaching 30.6 exabytes per month by 2020.