Mobile Internet access traffic offloaded from mobile networks to Wi-Fi represented 45 percent of total mobile Internet traffic in 2013, and will grow to 52 percent of total mobile Internet access traffic by 2018, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index.
Likewise, the amount of traffic offloaded from smartphones will be 51 percent by 2018, and the amount of traffic offloaded from tablets will be 69 percent by 2018. That is a good indicator of how foundational and strategic unlicensed spectrum and fixed network Internet access has become for mobile service providers and their customers, even when the fixed network access is not owned by the mobile service provider.
That, in turn, illustrates a fundamental principle of modern computing and communications, namely that applications and access are fundamentally separated. The implications for communications service providers are decidedly mixed, as a result. On one hand, the ability to offload traffic to third party networks creates new end user value for suppliers of fixed access.
Consumers understand how offloaded mobile Internet access saves them money on their mobile service and also improves experience, since fixed networks can run an order of magnitude faster than mobile connections, and typically between twice and five times faster than mobile connections. Mobile service providers also are able to avoid making capital investments in their networks as often as would otherwise be the case.
The ability to offload mobile phone data demand to Wi-Fi networks reduces demand growth on mobile networks by about four percent a year, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index. Global mobile data traffic would grow at a compound annual growth rate of 65 percent instead of 61 percent, were offload to Wi-Fi not possible. At the same time, more consumers are choosing to connect their tablets using the mobile networks, a trend that fuels net subscriber growth for the leading four national mobile service providers in the United States.
Cisco estimates that by 2018, 42 percent of all tablets will have a mobile connection, up from 34 percent in 2013. Cisco’s estimates of mobile data traffic offload includes traffic from both public hotspots as well as residential Wi-Fi networks. Some suspect Wi-Fi offload will be less relevant once Long Term Evolution 4G networks are widely used. That argument assumes consumers default to Wi-Fi primarily for reasons of better user experience. To the extent that consumers also default to Wi-Fi to save money by limiting mobile data plan usage, that might not be the case.
In fact, 4G networks lead to much-higher data consumption, and that usage plans are volume sensitive, consumers will have high incentives to offload traffic to Wi-Fi, when possible. In 2018, for example, Cisco estimates that 4G connections will be 15 percent of the global total. At the same time, in 2018, 4G networks also will represent 51 percent of total global mobile data traffic.
While 3G and 3.5G account for 60 percent of mobile data traffic today, a 4G connection generates nearly 15 times more traffic than a non-4G connection, according to Cisco. In large part, that difference in consumption is driven by both higher usage and higher-bandwidth apps on 4G devices, especially video. Mobile video traffic exceeded 50 percent for the first time in 2012 and was 53 percent of traffic by the end of 2013.
Also, as smartphones become the devices of choice, consumption will grow. In 2013, on average, a smart device generated 29 times more traffic than a non-smart device, Cisco estimates.
In 2013, a 4G connection generated 14.5 times more traffic on average than a non‑4G connection. Although 4G connections represent only 2.9 percent of mobile connections today, they already account for 30 percent of mobile data traffic.
The point is that so long as mobile data plans are usage-based, there will continue to be high demand to offload traffic to Wi-Fi networks.