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CHAPTER II - Insatiable Demand for Wireless

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.”

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.
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