With smartphones and tablets replacing PCs as the default computing device for many consumers, so, too, is data traffic shifting from fixed to wireless networks. The analysts at Strategy Analytics believe that this movement, combined with the wider trend for increasing time spent online, is going to translate to a huge increase in wireless data traffic — which is set to rise by some 300% by 2017 to a peak of 21 Exabytes, from just 5 Exabytes in 2012. Driving that rise are services like streaming video, but interestingly not apps.
Up to now the rise in smartphone usage has seen traffic “doubling annually,” according David MacQueen, executive director for Apps and Media at Strategy Analytics, although in coming years, as markets get more penetrated, this will slow down somewhat to around 32%.
MacQueen tells me that these figures include all data services covering all kinds of handsets globally, but it excludes tablet traffic. Most of this traffic, needless to say, comes from smartphone usage rather than more basic handsets. Low-end services like SMS messaging, he notes, fall into that smaller “other” category.
While a lot of the buzz today has to do with apps — and indeed in 2012 we saw a tipping point in one leading market, the U.S., where apps started to outweigh mobile websites in terms of usage — when it comes to actual data consumption, it’s a different story.
If you look at the table below, you’ll see that the growing popularity of data-intensive services like video streaming will be what drives this boom in mobile data traffic, which will grow by 42% by 2017. And even though mobile websites are often not as popular as apps, they are more intensive when it comes to network usage, and so when looking at mobile data traffic, mobile web browsing plays a much stronger role. It will grow by 30% until 2017. That’s also a good counterpoint to why apps remain popular today: they may simply just be easier and more efficient to use as a result.
Interestingly, in Strategy Analytics’ table below, apps get lumped together with games — a huge activity on mobile devices, but also often as a “native experience” — and they still are a small part of activity compared to browsing and video. And in a sign of how prominent music streaming services are and will become, this, too, will remain a small piece of the pie. (I’m reaching out to SA to try to get actual numbers for the tablet below btw.)
Update: Video accounted for 1.5 exabytes of data in 2012 and “shows the greatest growth over the forecast period”, MacQueen says. “We expect video traffic to grow to 8.6 exabytes in 2017.” Strategy Analytics estimates that mobile web browsing accounted for 2.6 exabytes of data last year and will rise to 9.3 exabytes by 2017, so actually outpacing video, if growing slower.
He also explains part of why apps traffic is so low — it only counts app downloads but not usage within the app itself. “Apps were just under an Exabyte last year but we expect apps to generate just over 2 exabytes of traffic in 2017,” he says. “That apps number might seem low, but it’s because of the way we define traffic. If a user downloads the YouTube app, we count the download in the apps traffic, but the subsequent video streaming traffic it generates is counted in the video numbers.” [Original article continues below.]
The big challenge for carriers is to think of ways to ride this wave of popularity turn that network usage into profitable returns — their worry is that competing networks and consumer movement will breed commoditization. Another issue, however, is whether prices will become so expensive for users that they look to non-cellular services, such as WiFi, for their data needs.
“More and more mobile carriers are concerned about cost-effective delivery of a good mobile video experience on smartphones over 3G, 4G and WiFi,” writes Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, director of the Wireless Networks and Platforms service at Strategy Analytics. “More critically, carriers are asking how to monetize this growth in video traffic to profit from major investments made in LTE and other network upgrades.”