The whole world is sucking down mobile data like it’s water

We may be pushing more of our cellular activity over to Wi-Fi, but we’re still guzzling mobile data like it’s going out of style, according to the latest estimates from Cisco’s Mobile Visual Networking Index. The telecommunications equipment vendor puts out its Visual Networking Index twice a year, once for wireline and once for mobile network traffic — and estimates how much we’ll see in the coming five years.

And when it comes to cellular, the entire world is going to go from consuming about 2.5 exabytes a month in 2014 to 25 exabytes a month in 2019, with a large portion of that growth coming from new device users in developing countries in Latin America, China and the Middle East. Just for comparison’s sake, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes. My cellular plan lets me have 5GB a month.


That’s a lot of cellular activity and some of that will be spread among 2G, 3G and 4G connections according to the folks at Cisco. But what’s more notable is that the individual data usage will increase so much — from almost 2GB used per month in 2014 in North American to almost 11 GB — brought about in part by adding more devices to the network. Think about not only traditional tablets and laptops, but also cars and connected gadgets, such as backup connections for a home hub or a connected medical device.


Thomas Barnett Jr., director of Cisco’s VNI program, expects there to be changes in carrier pricing to go with this increase in data, but it will most likely be in the guise of new shared device plans, not necessarily in more generous gigabit allotments given directly. It’s worth noting here that these numbers do not include Wi-Fi offload, which worldwide takes about 44 percent of the traffic off the network, according to Barnett. In the U.S., that number is about 66 percent.

The big drivers behind this growth won’t surprise many: People coming online and more devices. In developing countries, people coming online and the rise of smartphones in the hands of those people will drive much of the traffic growth in those countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, shown in the above chart and the one below, it’s worth noting that the averages are a bit skewed because rural China behaves like a developing country dragging down the averages of cities in South Korea and Japan where connectivity is oftentimes better than anywhere else in the world.

In North America and Western Europe, the reason for traffic growth will come from more video consumption, but also more devices coming online in the form of the internet of things. The chart below offers a pretty involved take at each country’s drivers if you have the patience to study it.


So let’s break down one of the macro trends driving traffic — the internet of things. Cisco has taken a closer look at both wearables and how the rise of newer, low power wide area networks (it calls these LPWA) like the Weightless or Sigfox networks might affect traffic. It thinks that those networks have a possible advantage for certain types of traffic, especially in western Europe where they seem to be taking off, but they don’t seem to be taking a significant burden off the existing cellular networks anytime soon.

That’s because there are many costs associated with transitioning from one network to another, and it’s not a move to be made lightly. If you have a 3G module in the field, it will likely remain there until it dies on its own or your carrier kills the 3G network.

This chart represents all of the device traffic including M2M across networks.

This chart represents all of the device traffic including M2M across networks.

This chart represents only M2M traffic  across networks. You can see that even among M2M 3G is winning through 2019.

This chart represents only M2M traffic across networks. You can see that even among M2M 3G is winning through 2019.

Cisco also broke down some trends in the wearables market, and estimated that a GoPro camera connected to a cellular network running for 2 hours would generate 600 MB of data. It did a similar case study for Google Glass a year or two ago just to send shivers down the spines of its telco customers, but the point is not all that crazy. People may not shoot video on cellular networks regularly, but video downloads still constitute a huge percentage of cellular traffic and video uploads are not terribly uncommon, especially at big events.

Meanwhile Cisco estimated that currently only two million wearables were connected to the cellular network in 2014 and estimated that number would only increase to about 42 million by 2019, accounting for just a small amount of the overall number of devices and traffic on networks. But it estimated that if those devices were medical they might need some service guarantees or require dedicated networks.

Finally, we’ll end with a fun chart that shows where the internet of things might fit in with all the other devices that connect to the cellular networks. I only wish Cisco had added cars to this chart, but it’s still fun to see that my smart watch might generate more data than a flip phone.