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Phones Will Drive Internet Traffic Past the Zettabyte Mark This Year

What's a zettabyte? Come on! It's a billion terabytes!

iStockphoto / Maxphotograph

It’s no real secret that the rise in the world’s Internet traffic in recent years has been driven by growth in the use of mobile smartphones. Today’s forecast from Cisco Systems, the world’s largest supplier of the routing and switching gear that constitutes much of the world’s Internet infrastructure, is an interesting milepost on the digital journey the world has been traveling since the Internet’s earliest days.

The Visual Networking Index, a survey of global Internet traffic trends, predicts that the total amount of Internet traffic will break the zettabyte barrier this year, and will double again in 2019.

What’s a zettabyte? It’s one billion terabytes. A terabyte is the amount of storage space you get in an Apple iCloud account for about $10 a month, or for those who still think in gigabytes, it’s one trillion gigs. Zettabytes are bigger than exabytes, which are bigger than petabytes, which are bigger than terabytes. It’s one sextillion bytes, which is a one followed by 21 zeros.

The big driver for all that is — you guessed it — mobile devices. Cisco reckons that 5.5 billion people — about 70 percent of the world’s population — will have a mobile device by 2020. And between now and then, global mobile traffic will grow at twice the rate of the world’s population growth. That means that data generated by mobile devices — phones, tablets, watches and the like — will grow eightfold in that time. By 2020, Cisco predicts the number of people with a mobile phone will exceed those who have electrical service, running water and a car.

On a regional basis, Africa and the Middle East are the areas of the world where Internet use is growing fastest, at a compound annual growth rate of 44 percent. Central and Eastern Europe came in second at 33 percent. Countries in the Asia and Pacific region including China will generate the most traffic overall — a little more than 54 exabytes per month — but will grow at a slower rate of 21 percent a year. North America including the U.S. will generate the second-largest data wake of about 50 exabytes a month but will grow at about 20 percent a year, Cisco says.

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