‘Driven by Video’: Five Takeaways From Cisco’s Annual Forecast of Global Mobile-Data Traffic

5G, next-generation Wi-Fi bolster a future centered on video

Last week, Cisco released its annual Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update (2017–2022) with massive numbers mapping out a future that will likely come as little surprise to anyone: the future is even more mobile than the present.

At a very macro level, the study projects that, by 2022, global mobile-data traffic will reach 930 exabytes, which Cisco put into context (with a bit of tongue in cheek) as the equivalent of all the movies ever made traveling across mobile networks every five minutes.

The study, which Cisco has issued annually for more than a decade, defines mobile users as anyone with a mobile-data plan and using a device that is at least a flip phone. It looks at the number of devices and connections from smartphones, tablets, etc. while also accounting for mobile signals from the Internet of Things.

You can read the report in its entirety HERE, but, with Mobile World Congress this week (Feb. 25-28) in Barcelona, here’s quick dive into the numbers with five key takeaways from the study.

1. Mobile Has Extremely High Penetration; Video Chews Up a Lot of Bandwidth
According to the study, there will be 5.7 billion mobile users by 2022, meaning that about 71% of the global population will have access to a mobile connection. Mobile penetration is even deeper in the U.S., where 86% of the population is connected by a mobile device.

It’s that kind of direct access to such a large swath of the world community that has entertainment brands of all kinds, not just sports, focusing their content strategies on a mobile screen.

“Sports leagues and networks are trying to leverage mobile opportunities because more and more people are willing and ready to consume content over their mobile device,” says Thomas Barnett, director, marketing/thought leadership, Cisco. “Being able to deliver content not just into living rooms but to wherever users happen to be and over any device that they happen to choose is very important.”

It also should come as little surprise that video is a both a huge driver of mobile traffic and the type of content that makes up the most mobile data. In 2017, 59% of mobile-data traffic was video-based. By 2022, that number will reach 79%. That number also includes personal-video chats on apps like FaceTime and Skype, but Cisco notes that live-streamed video is the largest chunk of the pie and continues to grow at a rapid rate.

2. Further Mobile Growth Will Be Dramatic and More Global
According to Barnett, when he and his team started doing this study more than 10 years ago, mobile or cellular traffic represented less than 5% of data traffic. By 2022, cellular traffic is projected to represent more than 20% of total IP traffic. In fact, cellular has exploded so much that, by 2022, mobile traffic alone will be approaching 1 zetabyte (930 exabytes) annually. That is 113 times more than all the mobile traffic generated in 2012.

Global mobile-data traffic is projected to increase sevenfold from 2017 to 2022 (13 exabytes per month in 2017 vs. 77 exabytes by 2022). Geographically, the Asia Pacific region drives the most traffic, with more than 56% coming from the area. The Middle East and Africa is the fastest-growing region.

3. Wide Commercial Deployment of Public-Facing 5G Is a Way Off, but North America Will Be a Leader
In the mobile world, 5G is garnering much of the buzz with its promise for society-altering high-speed connectivity. For the first time in this study, 5G’s future impact pinged the radar and did so in a big way: by 2022, nearly 12% of global mobile-data traffic will come from 5G connections, compared with 0% in 2017. At the beginning of the forecast period, in 2017, average global 5G traffic was about 8.7 Mbps. That is predicted to more than triple to 28.5 Mbps by 2022 (with global variance).

Despite that precipitous rise, the route to 5G remains a long one. Most deployments predicted by the study won’t take place until after 2022, extending beyond this study.

According to Cisco Software Engineer Shruti Jain, who served as an analyst on the study, North America as a region is actually an anticipated leader in 5G. By 2022, almost 9% of devices in North America will be at 5G, compared with only 3.4% globally. The U.S. will generate almost 40% of all mobile traffic by 2022 on the back of 5G.

4. When 5G Becomes Mainstream, Service Providers Will Have Big Decisions To Make on Data Caps
With a huge spike in mobile traffic plus the sheer scale of 5G (on average, 5G devices will be generating about three times more traffic than a 4G connection), important decisions will need to be made by service providers: most notably, what kind of data plans and data caps will be offered to customers?

“As consumers have more-powerful devices, they will have the capability not only to view HD but UHD or 4K video,” says Barnett. “With 5G, you will have the ability with lower latencies and no jitter, and it has the potential to give you the same experience that you have in your living room. People will have a different experience.

“New apps will be developed, many of which don’t exist today,” he continues. “Across gaming and video streaming and others, as you have this ability, user behavior will change, and the ramifications will fall to the service providers to determine how they will manage data caps. Will there continue to be unlimited data plans? The demand on the mobile network will continue to grow.”

5. Don’t Sleep on Wi-Fi
A common misconception about the potential of 5G is that it will reduce the need for Wi-Fi: mobile connectivity will be so great, that users will become less reliant on public Wi-Fi everywhere from transit hubs to sports stadiums. On the contrary, Wi-Fi is positioned to improve itself, and will play a major role in our mobile futures.

By 2022, almost 60% of current mobile traffic will be offloaded on to Wi-Fi networks. A new standard, called Wi-Fi 6, on the horizon will transform networks, and Wi-Fi will be significantly more efficient and effective than before.

“5G gets all the buzz, but Wi-Fi has a huge role in overall wireless networking,” says Barnett. “Wi-Fi is the unsung hero of wireless that allows service providers to deal with peaks and spikes in cellular traffic by offloading it onto a Wi-Fi network. They work in a complementary fashion with one another, and they are part of service providers’ overall strategies.”

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