In a mid-year update on global mobile data traffic growth, ABI forecasts that the volume will exceed 107 exabytes in 2017, which is eight times the expected volume in 2012. According to ABI research analyst Aapo Markkanen “2015 will be the last year when the traffic volume will grow by more than 50% annually. And that will happen despite of the fact that the monthly average per wireless subscriber, worldwide, will increase to almost 1.5 gigabytes by the end of our forecasting period.” The key point made is that a large source of traffic has been inadvertent data use and this era will come to an end in the next couple of years as fixes are implemented in operating systems and at the application level.
Put another way, the industry is getting smarter on optimizing software to maximize network efficiency. Another related and very important aspect that would help in addressing traffic growth is developing a better understanding of the nature of traffic. This aspect enables operators to better manage their service strategy and infrastructure assets as well as to develop pricing plans that can effectively bound traffic growth while maximizing data revenue. Consider the following:
- The disappearance of the “Busy Hour”: unlike voice service which peaks at certain hour during the day, data traffic is about uniformly distributed over many hours during the day. It is also widely believed that WiFi offload plays a key role in flattening the bandwidth utilization distribution of the access network. Understanding this inter-play works to minimize the cost of network infrastructure.
- Different applications are preferably used over different networks: smartphone users prefer to use different applications over the access network than over WiFi. In particular, download intensive activities (e.g. YouTube) are preferred over WiFi than over the access network. Maps on the other hand are typically heavily utilized over the access network. When roaming, users tend to limit usage to low-bandwidth applications such as social media and emails in addition to maps.
- Browsing constitutes the bulk of traffic followed by media, messaging (email and instant messaging) and maps.
- Applications are not used equally by a subscriber. Rather, a small subset of applications is used most of the time and typically, a subscriber use one application at a time. Furthermore, different applications dominate at different time during the day. This affects the length of data session. For video applications, the larger screen size contributes to longer viewing sessions. Maps and games have long sessions while productivity application sessions (e.g. email) are short.
- The traffic is heavily biased in favor of the downlink, at times exceeding 10:1, but typically it is 6:1. This value is very comparable to residential broadband services and unlike peer-to-peer traffic patterns which tend to have a ratio closer to 1:1.
In other words, subscribers use and interact with their mobile internet devices in different ways depending on location and situation resulting in different traffic patterns. Understanding these patterns will contribute to developing better plans that would impact the amount of traffic over the network. In support of this notion, consider Ericsson’s update on mobile traffic where they conclude that data plan is one of the most important factors in determining level of traffic usage. The potential is there to expand the differentiation between applications, location, time and network to create bundled service packages that maximize operator revenue while serving to bound traffic on the access network within manageable borders. In short, the slicing and dicing of traffic content is yet to fully take off, but when it does, it will provide operators a distinctive leverage to limit network traffic and at the same time generate additional revenue.