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Phones and Wearables Will Spur Tenfold Growth in Wireless Data by 2019

Imagine 65 trillion Instagram selfies.

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Persistent growth in the use of smartphones, plus the adoption of wireless wearable devices, will cause the total amount of global wireless data traffic to rise by 10 times its current levels by 2019, according to a forecast by networking giant Cisco Systems out today.

The forecast, which Cisco calls its Visual Networking Index, is based in part on the growth of wireless traffic during 2014, which Cisco says reached 30 exabytes, the equivalent of 30 billion gigabytes. If growth patterns remain consistent, Cisco’s analysts reckon, the wireless portion of traffic crossing the global Internet will reach 292 exabytes by the close of the decade.

To put that 292 exabytes in terms you might be able to understand: Imagine every person on Earth taking 23 Instagram selfies a day, every day, for an entire year. It would add up to about 65 trillion pictures.

One key driver will be the raw number of mobile users, which should rise to 5.2 billion from 4.3 billion now. Of the 7.2 billion people on the planet, about 59 percent have a mobile phone now. By 2019 that figure should rise to 69 percent of a population of about 7.6 billion.

Add to that 3.2 billion wireless devices used for machine-to-machine communications — essentially machines of one sort or another sharing data with other machines in industrial and other business settings. But included in that figure are 578 million wearable devices — fitness trackers, wireless wearable cameras and the like. Data from wearables will grow by a factor of 18 by 2019, Cisco says, and most will be channeled through smartphones.

Naturally, managing this explosion will become a priority for carriers. One technique Cisco said will help them do that is the offloading of wireless traffic to Wi-Fi networks. Last year less than half of wireless traffic — 46 percent — was offloaded to Wi-Fi. By 2019, that figure will rise to 54 percent. Additionally, more than half of all voice calls will be routed over Wi-Fi networks.

On a regional basis, traffic in the Middle East and Africa will grow the most at a compound annual rate of 72 percent. Traffic in Central and Eastern Europe will grow almost as fast at 71 percent. Traffic in North America will grow at a slower rate of 47 percent a year. However, in terms of raw traffic generated, Asia will lead the world, and will be responsible for almost 10 exabytes a month by 2019, followed by North America with nearly four exabytes a month.

In building out its forecast, Cisco relied partially on independent reports from analysts and studies of real-world traffic patterns combined with its own estimates of how the wireless market will evolve. Cisco is the world’s largest vendor of networking equipment to Internet and wireless service providers around the world.

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