Ericsson sees 10x growth in mobile traffic, but no tsunami

Another day, another gear maker getting into the broadband data prediction game, with Ericsson (s eric) prognosticating that mobile data traffic will be 10 times what it is today by 2015 at 3.5 exabytes per month. This is about half of rival gear maker Cisco’s (s csco) guesstimates of 6.3 exabytes per month by 2015, and meshes with Ericcsson’s assurances from Februay that the mobile tsuanmi won’t swamp networks.

Ericsson estimates that by 2016 mobile data traffic will be split equally between smartphones on one hand, and PCs and tablets on the other. However, despite the lowered traffic expectations, the Ericsson report doesn’t eliminate worries that operators might have about supporting traffic growth entirely. Instead of focusing on overall traffic growth like Cisco did, Ericsson pays attention to where this traffic will be generated — namely in heavily populated cities. From the report:

By 2016 over 30 percent of the world’s population are expected live in metro and urban areas with a density of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer. These areas represent less than 1 percent of the Earth’s total land area, yet they are set to generate around 60 percent of mobile traffic by 2016.

The results of this urban usage explosion are already evident in places like New York City and San Francisco, where it can sometimes be difficult to make a call or get good data rates. The solution to this might be best illustrated by AT&T, (s t) which is adding Wi-Fi hotspots to populated areas. Because sharing cell towers and limited spectrum in densely populated areas is a challenge of physics, cellular, Wi-Fi and perhaps other networks will have to coexist while moving between those networks becomes invisible to consumers.

Other than predicting our heterogenous network future, the Ericsson report offered a number of good data points derived from monitoring networks it has built around the world. Here are a few.

  • Global mobile penetration reached 82 percent in Q3 2011 and mobile subscriptions now total around 5.8 billion. However, the actual number of subscribers is around 3.9 billion, since many subscribers have several subscriptions.
  • In total, mobile subscriptions will reach above 8 billion by 2016, excluding the growth potential from M2M and other connected devices.
  • Mobile broadband subscriptions have grown around 60 percent year-over-year and have reached close to 900 million.
  • The spread observed for mobile PCs is between 1 and 7GB per month. Mobile PCs have the highest average monthly traffic volume per subscription over 3G (global average at 1-2GB), followed by tablets at 250-800MB and smartphones at 80-600MB.

For a sense of how the growth of mobile connectivity for people and machines will play out in our business, culture and professional lives, come check out our RoadMap event this Thursday in San Francisco.