Global net capacity passes tablet test

Experienced mobile network architects at communications service providers must feel overworked. But they certainly should not go underappreciated. These brilliant engineers have met one challenge after another while keeping us all connected.

Think about it. Not that many years ago, we were using basic cellphones to talk back and forth. Not much else happened on mobile networks. Since then we've thrown everything from smartphones to tethered laptops by the millions on our mobile infrastructure. In every case so far, network architects have risen to the occasion.

But the tablet's recent onslaught is truly a daunting challenge for them. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2011-2016 (Note: This links to a PDF), only 34 million tablets connected to the global mobile network in 2011, practically a rounding error when you consider that this year there will be as many mobile devices connected to worldwide networks as there are people on earth.

Still, while small in number, tablets are mighty big data users. Cisco says the average tablet handles 3.4x the amount of data as a smartphone, 517 Mbytes per month v. 150 Mbytes per month. Given the staggering growth in the number of 4G LTE-ready tablets hitting the market in the months ahead, the potential spikes in data loads on mobile networks likely will be notable. And to say this sector is expanding is to understate things. Goldman Sachs says the CAGR for tablets to 2020 will be 42%, while Gartner says CAGR for tablets will be 54% to 2016. (Pick your favorite explosive growth metaphor.) That's why Cisco estimates the amount of mobile data traffic generated by tablets will exceed one exabyte per month and be one-tenth of all the global mobile traffic in just four years. One has to wonder whether the networks can withstand this sustained surge of data-ravenous tablets.

A closer look inside the Cisco report leaves me confident that the world's mobile network technologists are up to the task. For example, while 4G LTE-capable devices comprised a mere 0.2% of mobile connections in 2011 they generated six percent of all the data traffic. Yet, our networks did not buckle under that spike in traffic.

Further, consider that mobile data traffic in 2011 was eight times the total global Internet traffic in 2000. But, oddly enough, while traffic levels skyrocketed worldwide, performance improved. The average connection speed for individual users jumped 66% between 2010 and 2011, which proves that our mobile network architects have built robust systems.

Smart ones, too. If you look a little closer at the study you'll see that CSPs have taken advantage of dual-mode devices or femtocell systems to offload traffic onto fixed networks to relieve congestion, reducing monthly data traffic by 72 petabytes. Cisco estimates CSPs will offload 22% of the total mobile data traffic by 2016.

So, while most of us celebrate tablets as devices that deliver rich content -- and that can help expand a business, mobile network architects confront them as yet another challenge to their networks. I have faith they will succeed once again. You should, too.

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