2009 Year in Review: Mobile data - the boom times arrive

The scene was set in 2008 for mobile data to at least meet or exceed expectation in 2009. Laptops enabled with 3G, Apple's iPhone, Blackberrys and assorted other smartphones helped push wireless data traffic into the big time with quarterly growth rates approaching 30 per cent being recorded.

An Orange exec went as far as claiming that this growth in mobile internet and data services was recession proof: "Nearly 25 per cent of our customers are now using 30Mb of data per month, compared with just 17 per cent of the base who were using 25Mb in February this year," was his bold statement.

Also of note was that HTTP downloads overtook P2P traffic in Europe during 2009, with HTTP streaming being the fastest growing application with a usage increase of 58 per cent. This included streaming sites such as YouTube and Hulu.

But all this extra revenue from surging data traffic is not without issues. The Orange exec admitted that the growth of mobile data and the recent trialling of HD voice services would put pressure on their network, but said they had invested in their 3G infrastructure accordingly.

O2 UK also confessed that its data network was in need of serious investment as pressure on the network was being felt in certain hotspot locations where there was a high concentration of smartphones (ie iPhones). "Data on our network has increased 20-fold in the last year alone, and to put this in context, watching a YouTube video on a smartphone can use the same capacity on the network as sending 500,000 text messages simultaneously," said CTO, Derek McManus.

Unanswered questions
This boom in data traffic comes at a time when operators are struggling to stop their voice revenues falling any further. But the Capex needed to stop the networks becoming overloaded with data might make the financial model difficult to justify. O2 UK has confirmed it will invest another £100 million in infrastructure to stop customers experiencing problems in hotspot areas, and other operators have admitted they will need to follow this example.

Making the case for further network Capex will be based around data, not voice. But with data caps no longer being applied, and bundles of minutes and megabytes falling, the squeeze on ROI might just force operators to consider Wi-Fi, an early move to LTE, or even (dare I say) WiMAX.

Related stories:
Mobile data usage doubles quarter over quarter
O2's network in meltdown from smartphone usage
Laptops to drive mobile broadband uptake - data growth 40x by 2017
European business users will fuel mobile data growth