Cisco’s 5-Year Mobile IP Forecast At 78% Traffic CAGR May Be Low

Thomas Barnett, senior manager, service provider marketing, Cisco Systems

Thomas Barnett, senior manager, service provider marketing, Cisco Systems

March 10, 2012 – Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the eye-popping mobile data traffic numbers Cisco Systems recently projected for the five-year horizon extending through 2016 is how conservative the numbers appear in the context of some cautious assumptions underlying various trend lines.
Cisco predicts mobile data traffic will grow 18 fold over the next five years, going from .6 exabytes (one billion billion bytes) per month in 2011 to 10.8 eB per month by the end of 2016. With mobile traffic projected to outpace fixed IP traffic by more than three to one during that period, the annual Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update predicts mobile data will represent over eight percent of all IP traffic by 2016

The number of mobile users will go from four billion, accounting for close to six billion connected devices today, to five billion with ten billion connected devices five years out, Cisco says. This includes two billion machine-to-machine connections.

Meanwhile, the data rates on the connections will be increasing astronomically, jumping from an average connection speed of 315 kbps in 2011 to 2.9 mbps in 2016. 4G, which today accounts for just 0.2 percent of all connections and about six percent of total data traffic, will account for 6 percent of the connections and 36 percent of the traffic in five years, the company says. In North America average connection speeds will jump from 1.7 mbps in 2011 to 6.8 mbps in 2016.

These are big leaps, but, actually, the projections appear to be based on some fairly conservative expectations. For example, in 2011, for the fourth year in a row, Cisco recorded better than a doubling of mobile data traffic – 2.3x to be precise –over the year before. But the 18-fold five-year growth projection going forward represents just a 78 percent compound annual growth rate.

“I’d agree some people believe our forecast is conservative,” says Thomas Barnett, senior manager of service provider marketing and a member of Cisco’s Visual Networking Index research team. “We’d rather be right than project without validation. Over the years, our projections have been within three to five percentage points of the final numbers.”

For example, Cisco in 2010 projected global data traffic would grow by 131 percent in 2011 when, in fact, it grew 133 percent. But the trend is always toward higher than projected numbers and an increase in projections from one year to the next for any given year on the target line. A year ago the projection for monthly global data traffic for 2015 was 6.4 eB, which, with this year’s forecast, was raised to 6.9 eB for the same year.

One of the big unknowns is just how big a role video will play in the traffic volume, not only as ever more tablets come into play but also as ever more people use mobile as their only connection, especially in developing countries. This year’s forecast calls for a 90 percent video traffic CAGR over five years, with video accounting for 70 percent of all mobile data traffic in 2016.

“2012 is a key milestone where video is concerned,” Barnett says. “We predict over 50 percent of all mobile data traffic this year will be video.”

Today only about seven percent of the world’s four billion mobile users have no fixed connections for services. By 2016 21 percent of five billion users will be wireless-only, Cisco says, which suggests the video usage rate and therefore overall traffic levels on that 21 percent base could be much higher than for the other four billion users.

Moreover, Barnett notes, the new users coming on in the wireless-only segment will likely be operating over 4G networks. “In some of these emerging markets putting a cell tower up is a whole lot faster and cheaper than digging trenches and laying fiber,” Barnett says.

Another factor likely to result in higher actual traffic volumes than projected is growing use of video telecommunications over wireless devices. “I don’t think we accounted for that in our numbers,” Barnett says.