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Wireless demand to fuel spectrum feeding frenzy

The broadcast incentive auction can’t come soon enough, if Cisco’s annual forecast of U.S. and global internet traffic, comes to pass.

From 2014 through 2019, all Cisco’s arrows are pointing up—way up—for the number of U.S. internet users, the mobile devices they carry or use, and the data they consume. Broadband speeds will accelerate, the share of internet traffic that transit wireless networks of all types will explode. And video will rule them all.

As Americans’ habits shift towards mobile and broadband digital, policymakers in Washington, especially the Federal Communications Commission, are struggling to keep up, from the FCC’s planned broadcast incentive auction in 2016 to get more mobile spectrum in the marketplace, to proposals governing broadband and mobile networks.

Last year, Internet video accounted for 39.4 percent of all internet protocol (IP) traffic.  (IP traffic includes video on demand sent to your cable box, as well as data traffic your OTT device like Roku and Apple TV, which is classed as Internet video.)  Cable plus Internet video currently accounts for 79 percent of the 14.4 exabytes/month of data transiting to your cable box.

By 2019, IP traffic will balloon to 45.7 exabytes/month and video will account for 85 percent of that volume.

The other big up arrow is the ever growing consumer demand for mobile data. The FCC’s broadcast incentive auction will be the last chance for wireless carriers to bid on prime mobile spectrum. Cisco’s forecasts illuminate what’s at stake for any company that wants to be in the mobile business and why even a fixed line broadband provider like Charter has urged the FCC to increase the spectrum reserve for new entrants.

By 2019, the volume of data carried by pure mobile networks (LTE band and the like) will grow sevenfold, from 0.5 exabytes a month to 3.6 exabytes a month.  Pure mobile currently accounts for 5.2 percent of U.S. Internet traffic and by 2019 will grow to 11.2 percent of the significantly increased amount of traffic.

Unlicensed spectrum will continue to dominate consumer access to the internet.  Wi-fi currently carries 55 percent or 5.5 exabytes/month of U.S. Internet traffic. Cisco sees volumes of traffic carried by wi-fi expanding fourfold to 21 exabytes/month and wi-fi’s share  of internet traffic as rising to 65.4 percent by 2019.

Because only so much spectrum can be devoted to wi-fi, the FCC has been advocating spectrum sharing programs a way to give users of unlicensed devices—wireless microphones and wi-fi routers—access to more of the airwaves.

U.S. Internet traffic by local access technology

2014 Share 2019 Share CAGR
Exabytes/month 10.2 32.2 25.9%
Mobile Data (LTE etc.) 0.5 5.2% 3.6 11.2% 46.7%
Wi-fi via Mobile Device 0.7 7.1% 7.1 22.2% 58.3%
Wi-Fi via wi-fi device 4.8 47.6% 13.9 43.3% 23.6%
Wired (Ethernet) 4.1 40.1% 7.5 23.4% 13.1%