Feature Article

June 03, 2013

Global Mobile Data Traffic to Swell, But Can Mobile Providers Cope?

The levels of global mobile data traffic have been on a frantic upward tear for the last few years now. In 2012 alone, the levels of traffic expanded 69 percent over the previous year. By the end of 2013, the levels are expected to grow another 72 percent over just last year's figures. But with growth numbers like these expected to push global mobile data traffic up around 23,000 petabytes, can mobile providers ever keep up?

The VP and practice director for core forecasting at ABI Research, Jake Saunders, says that mobile providers can keep up, but at the same time, mobile providers need to focus on the options available to find the best way to handle all that traffic. Saunders went on to say: “There has been much ‘doom-mongering’ about this growth in mobile data traffic but mobile carriers should not panic just yet. There are indications that mobile carriers have a number of options to handle the traffic loads.”

Given that ABI Research just recently released a report titled “Carrier Strategies to Alleviate the Capacity Crunch,” it's reasonable to suggest that ABI Research has a good handle on just what options are available to carriers. Indeed, the ABI Research report detailed several critical technologies available to mobile providers to keep on the right side of the global mobile data traffic lines.

First, there are options in terms of radio access. While LTE is rapidly gaining ground with carriers, stepping up to LTE-Advanced offers some extra benefits beyond even LTE. For instance, LTE-Advanced release 10 offers support for Multi-In Multi-Out antenna technology, several technologies geared to reduce interference like eICIC and CoMP, and the new Carrier Aggregation technology that allows for boosts in network capacity and speed by allowing carriers to use blocks of spectrum all at once.

That's a great step, but also included in the ABI Research report is the ability to work with network architecture itself to produce desired results. Optimizing the network base stations involved in the network is likely to provide some extra results, and given that only a slim number of mobile operators have been working with small cells—as of the first quarter of 2013, according to the ABI Research numbers—that's an option that's offering a lot of untapped potential.

Finally, the spectrum itself is yielding some options. Available spectrum is set to go from 300 MHz to 1,500 MHz before 2023, and may actually be available by 2018. While not all of this spectrum may make it to mobile operators—there are some pushes from the EC, the FCC, and several other groups to get something into functions like cognitive radio like white space television—it's still a safe bet that at least some of it will make it to mobile. That's going to put a little extra boost into handling traffic levels.

There are plenty of options available for mobile networks to keep up with the onslaught of mobile data traffic. But the question of the day has to be, how much can the networks do while still remaining profitable? Some of these fixes might take some substantial investment in new infrastructure, and that's likely to be a pretty big drain on the bottom line. Yet by like token, can mobile providers afford to refuse? The customers want mobile data, in large quantities, and saying no may just be a fatal hit to the bottom line. Only time will tell how it all ends up, but clearly, something needs to be done.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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