How Mobile Will Reach the Exabyte Age By 2012

Cisco (s CSCO) today released the latest iteration of its Visual Networking Index, and forecast that mobile traffic worldwide would reach more than one exabyte per month by 2012. To put that in perspective, the wired web transferred that much data as of 2004, more than three decades after the first email was sent. The mobile web will reach this milestone 18 years after the first text message was sent.

Cisco’s numbers (used to sell the firm’s networking gear) validate my theory that the next big revolution in computing will be comprised of a combination of mobility, processing power and interactivity. But while the data predicts what such a change will mean for the pipes connecting people to the mobile web, it doesn’t get into what needs to happen in order for the Exabyte Age to commence.

We’re getting closer on the hardware side with integrated radios and powerful processors on mobile devices ranging from networks to smartphones. Thanks to new chips such as Qualcomm’s (s QCOM) Snapdragon, Nvidia’s (s nvda) Tegra or Intel’s (s intc) Atom, processing power has expanded while keeping power consumption low. On the communications side, integrated radios offer different types of connectivity while keeping the device size small.

Improvements in the user interface, such as touchscreens and speech recognition, also drive mobile web use, as seen with the iPhone (s aapl). Cisco claims that every smartphone added to a network is akin to adding 30 feature phones, while adding a laptop is like adding 450 feature phones — illustrating how improvements in usability and processing power drive data use.

When it comes to interactivity, developers are pushing applications that create real-time, two-way communication between devices and servers inside a company database or a cloud. Location-based services such as Google’s (s GOOG) Latitude product, accessing applications through a browser and even services such as server-based speech recognition are already offering real-time interactivity.

Which brings us to the pipes. Without wireless connectivity there is no mobility, which is why next-generation mobile networks are so important for Cisco’s growth forecasts. WiMAX is already being deployed around the world, and Cisco estimates that LTE will be broadly deployed by some carriers by 2012 or possibly 2013. Doug Webster, senior director of service provider marketing with Cisco, says the 4G networks aren’t only about speed, but about an all-IP network that will bring the costs per bit to deliver data over a mobile network in line with the cost of delivering that same data over a wired one.

That’s good, because the biggest roadblocks to the Exabyte Age are the carriers’ current business models — namely the high cost of mobile data plans, hit-or-miss access to applications that generate higher data use, and the restraints on the amount of data a consumer can download under current plans. To get to the traffic levels shown below, the carriers are going to have to do their parts.