There will be more internet-connected mobile devices such as smartphones and 3G tablets than people in the world before the end of the year, according to new research.
A growing category will be internet-connected monitors for "smart metering", video surveilance, maintenance, building automation, healthcare and consumer electronics – a class of device known as "machine-to-machine" (M2M) systems which communicate directly to other computers over the internet without the mediation of humans.
The forecast by the networking giant Cisco says that the growth in the use of smartphones and tablets will see more than 7bn – the world's current population – in use, with huge growth in use in Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
But the rapid growth in connected devices will put the existing internet infrastructure under increasing strain, and force internet providers to shift customers and networks over to the next-generation "IPv6" system – which expands the number of devices that can connect directly to the internet from around 4.3bn (using the existing IPv4 system) to a gigantic figure large enough to give every single person their own private IPv4-based internet.
Despite the near-exhaustion of the IPv4 address space in February 2012, progress towards wider use of IPv6 has been slow, says Trefor Davies, a driving force behind the adoption of IPv6 in the UK: "in the US, the government has mandated it in some areas, such as the US Navy, but the UK government seems to be concerned about costs." The two protocols are incompatible, and updating systems used by internet service providers to offer a fully IPv6-capable system has put many off, Davies suggested.
But the Cisco report points to dramatic change that is already happening in the field of mobile connectivity:
• Mobile video already makes up more than half of the data transmitted worldwide, the company says – and by 2017 it will make up two-thirds of it.
• The average amount of data consumed by smartphone users rose 81%, from 189MB per month in 2011 to 342MB monthly in 2012.
• smartphones consumed 92% of global mobile data traffic, despite only making up 18% of the handsets in use globally. The typical "featurephone" only consumed 6.8MB of data traffic per month – 2% of the amount that the typical smartphone did.
By 2017, Cisco says, the average smartphone will generate 2.7GB of data traffic a month – almost a tenfold growth from today, and one that will put enormous demands on the internet backbone.
The rapid growth in 4G connections - for which auctions are now underway in the UK - generated a 19-fold larger amount of data traffic than a non-4G connection, Cisco says. Despite only making up 0.9% of all mobile connections - mostly based in the US – 4G connections already make up 19% of data traffic, and the expected rise in such connections will contribute to huge increases in data consumption.3G-connected tablets and laptops
The number of tablets with 3G or faster connections rose from 14.4m to 35m, and each tablet generated 820MB per month – 2.4 times more data traffic than the average smartphone
There were 161m 3G-connected laptops, generating seven times more data than the average smartphone – of 2.5 gigabytes per month (which itself was up from 2.3GB in 2011).
The fastest growth in device adoption over the next five years will be for tablets, Cisco says – predicting an average 46% growth year on year, and data growth more than doubling, by 113% annually. The next fastest growth will be in "machine to machine modules", which presently make about 5% of internet-enabled devices, growing at 36% annually, and seeing data traffic grow by 89% compound.
Smartphones will see 20% growth in numbers, it forecasts, while the data they consume will grow by 81%. The majority will be "featurephones" with internet capability – typified by Nokia's Asha device, which can browse the web and send email but cannot load third-party apps (the latter being the definition of a smartphone used by research companies).
But after 2016, says Cisco, the number of featurephones in use overall will begin to drop for the first time ever as smartphones become a larger part of connectivity. "While Asia-Pacific and Middle East and Africa will still show a low single digit growth for non-smartphones, all other regions will experience a decline," the report says. "The highest decline will be experienced by North America (negative CAGR of 37%) and western Europe (negative CAGR of 17%)."
With smartphone penetration in the UK already at 58%, and in the US at 54%, the largest opportunities lie in China and Africa – where a number of companies are now pushing with their own smartphone offerings.Growth in internet-connected devices
The rapid growth in smartphones, 3G- and 4G-connected tablets, dongle-equipped laptops and M2M devices will see the number of internet-connected devices outnumber humans later this year, it says.
The fastest growth in data traffic will be in the Middle East and Africa, which will see a 77% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years, while the Asia/Pacific region will see 76% CAGR and Latin America 67%, Cisco says.
By Charles Arthur