Deeper Dive—Will growth in data traffic ever slow down?

data visualization
Data demand isn't expected to slow anytime soon. (ra2studio/iStock)

One of the constants of the past few years has been the extraordinary growth in data traffic. Each year brings with it new reports of the massive increases in users’ data demands, alongside predictions that such growth will continue.

The logical question to ask, then, is when that growth of data will slow.

The answer is that it won't slow down, at least in the foreseeable future, though the percentages are trending downward. And the interesting dynamic underlying those topline statements is that the number of growth drivers actually are increasing as network capabilities grow and wireless and wired networks burrow ever more deeply into the way consumers live and organizations operate.

"For the foreseeable future I don't see demand subsiding in any tangible way," said David Reinsel, an SVP at research and consulting firm IDC. "Though, granted, it will ebb and flow."

The shrinkage in percentage growth is a simple result of the base growing larger over time. After racking up year after year of tremendous gains, it is inevitable that percentage shrink. Experts describe this as an "S" curve, in which an early period of slow percentage growth is followed by an extended and often explosive period of rapid growth (the vertical element of the "S") and a return to slower percentage growth once the category matures.

But the overall amount of data being used will continue to grow significantly. The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI), a high profile measure of data traffic, was last published in 2017. Cisco still stands by the older estimates and provided some highlights to FierceWireless.

Specifically, the company expects IP traffic to grow globally by almost three times during the five years between last year and 2021. That's a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24%. Wireless and mobile traffic will account for more than 63% of IP traffic by 2021. North American IP traffic will reach 85 exabytes per month by 2021, a CAGR of 20%. An update to the VNI, which may come before the end of the year, is unlikely to say anything fundamentally different than the current edition.

Ericsson also offers estimates and commentary on data usage growth. Patrik Cerwall, the editor of the Ericsson Mobility Report, told FierceWireless that data growth was more than 100% annually before 2013. It dropped to about 70% in 2015 and 2016 and 60% last year. The increase will be about 50% this year. "We will have eight times more data in 2023," Cerwall said.

Ericsson puts the CAGR at 39% between last year and 2023.

Those numbers are so large that they are difficult to conceptualize. Another way to understand it is this: Right now, Cerwall said, people in North America use an average of about 7 GB per month of data. "The amazing thing is that we predict that will go up to 49 GB per month by 2023," Cerwall said.

Factors driving the growth

The growth in the amount of data that users consume each day is the result of a variety of overlapping trends. For example, people continue to use popular and well-established services and applications, but perhaps more importantly the replacement of DVDs and other physical media by streaming video services is likely driving significant increases in data usage. That, coupled with the increase in the number of people accessing the internet, as well as the number of things transmitting data, is pushing total consumption ever higher.

Of course, increases are also likely due to a combination of interrelated factors. For instance, an IoT application that monitors refrigeration in trucks hauling strawberries won't consume too much data. They'd only have to "speak up" if the temperature passes a certain threshold. The mission-critical nature of that application, however, requires increasingly robust networks, which will then could push usage over time.

And when such applications are deployed, they could then help create a market for newer and more bandwidth-intensive applications.

And the development of 5G—alongside other new technologies—could provide another boost, said Reinsel. New network technologies help create the opportunity for new data-heavy services like autonomous vehicles and robotics.

Indeed, IDC says that by 2025 the "global datasphere" will reach 163 zettabytes. That is ten times the 16.1 ZB of data generated in 2016. In a study done for Seagate last year entitled "Data Age 2025: The Evolution of Data to Life-Critical," IDC pointed to five trends that will drive data usage: The continued evolution of data from business background to "life-critical;" the proliferation of embedded systems and the IoT; the increasing use of mobile and real-time data; data usage from cognitive computing and artificial intelligence (AI) systems; and security systems.

The bottom line is that increasingly complex services will help drive demand for better networks, which could support increasingly complex services—a cycle that could repeat beyond the foreseeable future. "As we move to a real-time world and start building services that require real-time delivery of data, you need redundancy in your networks so you have the ability to handle peak loads," Reinsel said.