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Summary:

Globally the average mobile user consumed 201 MB a month in 2012. In North America, we binged on more than triple that amount. By 2017, Cisco says, those numbers will increase by a factor of 10.

The average global mobile user consumed 201 MBs of data a month in 2012, more than doubling the 92 MBs monthly average from 2011, according to Cisco Systems’ new Visual Networking Index (VNI) for mobile traffic.

That may not seem like a huge amount, but it’s spread out over the entire world’s population, including parts of the world where 3G connections are still rare and smartphone uptake negligible. When broken down by region, the numbers really pop. Cisco found the typical North American accounted for 752 MBs a month, while Western Europeans ate up a monthly average of 491 MBs.

Cisco Mobile VNI regional consumption

In total, devices with mobile connections generated 900 petabytes of traffic (a petabyte being 1 million GBs) each month in 2012. And we ain’t seen nothing yet. Cisco is projecting global mobile traffic will grow at compounded annual rate of 66 percent for the next five years, doubling 13 times by 2017. This year, monthly mobile traffic will enter the exabyte era (an exabyte being 1 billion GBs). By 2017 global mobile users will eat up 11.2 EBs each month, according to the VNI.

Cisco is tracking the culmination of many trends. Not only are the number of smartphones and tablets increasing, but more devices from cameras to cars are getting connected. The average data usage per device is on the rise, but so is the total number of connected devices each person owns.

The result is explosion of mobile data consumption across an explosion of new devices – even if the number of actual subscribers is only increasing incrementally. There are 4.3 billion mobile subscribers today, by Cisco’s estimates. We’ll add less than a billion to that figure by 2017.

Cisco VNI mobile regional breakdown

In that year, the average global consumer will be responsible for 2 GB each month, but North America will go for extra helpings at the mobile broadband buffet. Cisco predicts that the average U.S. or Canadian subscriber will account for 6.2 GBs of consumption each month, spread out over multiple devices. Western European usage will be nearly half that number.

The average Asian consumer will fall below the 2 GB mark, but they’ll make up plenty of ground in sheer volume of users. In 2017, Asia will have 2.8 billion people hooked into the mobile internet using a total of 5.2 billion connected devices. In North America there will only be 316 million subscribers sporting 841 million individual connections. Despite their data heavy diets, American and Canadians will account for only 19 percent of global mobile traffic, while Asia will consume nearly half.

Cisco mobile VNI device breakdown

Not all of that traffic will traverse cellular networks. Cisco counts mobile traffic offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks or carrier femtocells in its calculations, though it doesn’t count Wi-Fi-only devices such as a tablet without 3G/4G radio. According to Cisco’s calculations, 33 percent of all mobile device traffic never reached a cell tower and was shunted into an access point or femtocell instead.

By 2017, Cisco expects Wi-Fi and femtos to handle nearly half of all mobile traffic. For data-centric devices like tablets, that number will be as high as 71 percent. North America is already well ahead in the offload curve. About 47 percent of our region’s mobile bits traversed local area networks in 2012.

Cisco VNI mobile offload

Cisco compiles its numbers through a combination of multiple independent analyst reports, direct measurements from its speed-test apps and metrics it collects from its operator customers. Because Cisco has a vested interest in selling hardware that pushes packets through the mobile internet, its VNI has faced criticism in the past, particularly as carriers use Cisco’s projections to justify their spectrum acquisition sprees.

For the last five years, Cisco has revised VNI projections each year to account for new variables and the previous years recorded measurements. Last year it revised its projections upwards, finding its 2011 analysis too conservative. This year Cisco lowered its projections downwards slightly. Cisco analysts said new tiered plans in North America and Europe applied the brakes on average consumption, especially in Europe where there is a high concentration of 3G/4G connected laptops.

Buffet image courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fryer

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  1. Reblogged this on Bill Bennett and commented:
    If anything New Zealand’s data appetite grew even fast. 2degrees sent out a press release last week saying data use on its network increased by almost three times in the last year. It didn’t say what the base was, so it’s not clear if that estimate means anything much.

    Meanwhile Vodafone New Zealand says its data traffic has quadrupled over two years and climbed by 1300% in the last four years.

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  2. And you wonder why mobile broadband in the U.S. still sucks:

    http://lgponthemove.blogspot.com/2012/01/off-beaten-track-why-mobile-broadband.html

    My average use TODAY with a laptop is 30GB/month (and those are months without Netflix), so I’m not surprised. What annoys the heck out of me is that carriers (along with other so-called experts) have for years been feeding this faery tale to the general population that unlimited data plans aren’t feasible. What will carriers do when tablet users begin to hog services like Netflix/Hulu, or Windows 8 slate owners begin to use Steam for game purchases/downloads?

    Verizon’s top 4G LTE tier is 30GB for which they charge an eye-popping $180/month. Clear will still provide unlimited data for a flat $50, but you get at best DSL speeds only. There needs to be a better solution when countries in Asia can deliver faster speeds and do it for under $2/GB.

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  3. I think I would describe a reduction of around a third in topline forecasts more than just a slight reduction. For example, this time last year they reckoned 2016 would be 10.8 EB per month and now it’s 7.4 EB but hey who can forecast out five years

    The real problem is with their forecast for 2012, in Feb 2012, they reckoned it would be 1.3EB per month in 2012, a growth of 116% on the actual (?) for 2011. Today, a year later, they believe the actual for 2012 was only 0.9 EB a growth of 50%! That’s a massive change, so if they can’t get a forecast right for the actual year they are in, what confidence five years out!

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    1. Hi 186K,

      Valid point, and I admit to dropping the ball in the last graph. I was looking at from the POV that the CAGR dropped by only a few percentage points, but like you say when spread out over five years, year 2017 numbers drop significantly. I should have delved a little deeper with my analysis.

      Another thing that changed significantly is the amount of data Cisco is now projecting is going to offload, which has a big impact. Carriers and the government are citing the VNI when justifying the need for more licensed spectrum, but if more than half of is going to offload maybe unlicensed is exactly where they should be looking.

      In any case, I will give Cisco credit for making their methodology plain. They readily admitted they underestimated the effect of caps and tiered plans on their growth projections. They were also caught off guard by the flatlining of laptop usage in Europe.

      That said I agree with you that it’s impossible to project 5 years out no matter how much data you collect. That’s one of the main reasons I prioritized today and last years’ numbers over the five year projections.

      Check in in a few days though. We have one of our analysts doing a deep dive into the implications of Cisco’s VNI adjustments. It should be a good read.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Yesterday ARM was talking about sales in 2012 – 1.6B internet connected devices, mostly smartphones,tablets,TVs and PCs .In 2017 according to Gartner and ARM estimates , 4 billion internet connected screens.
    Cisco seems to be conservative in the way the industry goes. It’s very unlikely for tablets to even exist in 2017, most cars might not have a connection (the phone supplies it), regions with better regulators will have better supply of mobile data and many will cut the ethernet cord (the US is likely to fall behind here, or lets say further behind).

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    1. Since we are well on our way to 4 billion internet connected devices/screens, it only makes sense to use a service that is device independent to store, sync and share your photos, music, video and documents. CloudMe has your bases covered with apps for phones, tablets, computers and smart tvs.

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