Preparing for the age of Exabytes

Scott Thompson of Oberon Inc. shares some eye-opening data about the coming tidal wave of mobile data traffic.

Nov 16th, 2010
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by Scott Thompson, Oberon Inc.

Early this year Cisco Systems Inc. released a forecast that should really catch the attention of any individual in the data-communications industry. The forecast predicts that global mobile traffic will more than double every year, from now until 2014, reaching a stunning 3.6 Exabytes (EB) of data per month. (See the Cisco forecast here.) Even the name "Exabyte" sounds formidable, but what is it? An Exabyte is 1015 bytes of data, or a billion Megabytes. This prodigious number will have grown from a "miniscule" 0.09 EB of global mobile data in 2009.

What is driving this growth? According to the forecast, it is predominately mobile video data (66%), followed by mobile web (17%), mobile P2P (8%), mobile gaming (5%), and mobile VoIP (4%). What will this content be delivered to? The forecast provides the chart at the bottom of this page, wherein most of the mobile traffic will be delivered to laptops (70%) and much of the balance delivered to smartphones (21%).

Of course, if you are in the information transport systems (ITS) industry, you are wondering how this remarkable growth will impact your business. The large share of data that will be consumed by laptops suggests great demand will be placed on the enterprise wireless local area network (wireless LAN or WiFi network), although laptops can be equipped with a cellular aircard, thereby placing some of this demand on the cellular network. Conversely, the data traffic consumed by smartphones suggests the demand will be placed on the cellular network, although virtually all smartphones are dual-mode, meaning they can connect to the Internet both through the cellular network and through the wireless LAN.

In any case, the demands that will be placed on the mobile operators' cellular networks, the enterprise wireless LAN, and perhaps even your home network, are going to increase by a factor of about 40 in the next four to five years. Even now, a smartphone creates as much traffic as 10 basic-feature phones on the cellular network, and iPhones in particular can generate as much traffic as 30 basic-feature phones. Laptops routinely generate greater than 1,000 times the traffic of a basic-feature phone. As more video content is generated over the next few years, these devices will demand significantly more bandwidth.

New cellular networks operating with 4G technology such as Long Term Evolution (LTE) will have dramatically increased capabilities over current cellular networks, but due to limited spectrum and the expense of infrastructure build-out, evidently more and more of the traffic will be off-loaded onto the prevailing wireless LAN (WiFi network). Off-loading is a term people in the industry will hear more in the coming years. The mobile oeprators simply do not have enough spectrum and cellular base-stations to support these mobile applications that will, in some cases, be used indoors where a wireless LAN should exist anyway.

Further compounding this effect is the transition of more traffic from the fixed to the mobile network. Just as households have completely abandoned their wireline phone for the mobile phone, more users are abandoning their wired data connection for the mobile connection. New workers fully expect a mobile work environment with a mission-capable wireless LAN.

If you are in the cabling business you already know that more WiFi means more cabling tom ore access points. And better cellular performance will be achieved through the use of in-building distributed antenna system (DAS) and femtocells, which are cabled to the Internet.

It will be interesting to see in the next few years how industry responds to these demands. Bandwidth needs to be pushed closer to the user, yet the user does not want to be tethered. Creative solutions comprising innovative cabling infrastructure and wireless design will be required.

Scott Thompson is president and founder of Oberon Inc. You can e-mail him at sdt@oberonwireless.com.

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