Mobile data growth rate to decrease by 2015? Doubtful.

gold tidal wave

The mobile data tsunami we’ve watched build over the past five years will crest in 2015 and the world will consume a whopping 107 exabytes through mobile networks in 2017. But the demand wave will grow slower in 2015, ABI research said on Wednesday, because “needless burden” on cellular networks will be addressed through Wi-Fi offload and smarter devices that can take advantage of free hotspots.

Although ABI predicts that monthly mobile data use is expected to jump eight-fold in the next five years, the rate of growth after such time will slow:

“It looks like 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.”

Wireless offload is a topic we’ve addressed here many times in the past; there are definitely huge opportunities to reduce mobile data demand by supplementing mobile networks with Wi-Fi. The wireless industry is starting to embrace this solution, but it isn’t expected to account for a huge demand reduction for cellular data: Cisco estimates that only 22 percent of mobile traffic will flow through Wi-Fi in 2016, for example.

Like Cicso, I suspect ABI is over-estimating the effect of Wi-Fi offload, but that’s only half of the equation. There’s simply no reason to believe that the rate for mobile data demand will decrease starting in 2015. Here’s why:

First, we’re still a world of low- to no-data required feature phones. With roughly 7 billion people on the planet, only 16 percent at the end of last year had a smartphone, estimates Tomi Ahonen. Far fewer have tablets. But in the next three years, the overall user base for data is sure to grow as smartphones  decline in price and network infrastructure improves worldwide. That means more demand for some time to come in my opinion.

Second is the problem of “not knowing what we don’t know.” By that, I mean we simply can’t predict what mobile device activities will require data, nor how much of it. We’re moving from email to social networking apps and local video to sharing or downloading digital media over wireless networks.

Simply put: Our reliance on the mobile Internet is only just beginning and the web-based activities three years from now can’t be determined. Again, Cisco seems to agree, suggesting that cloud services and apps will account for nearly three-quarters of mobile broadband use by 2016.

Without a doubt, Wi-Fi offload will help matters. But we have so few solutions trying to combat a near-infinite number of mobile use cases — many we haven’t yet envisioned — for us to assume that mobile demand will slow three years from now.

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