There has been a steady increase in the volume of data traffic globally since the introduction of the internet in the 1990s. With the emergence of web browsers during 1995-2000, the internet of information search was also introduced. This resulted in to a massive leap in data traffic worldwide, from 20 petabyte (PB) per month to 80 PB per month.

The next phase of growth in data traffic came during 2000-05, when internet of personalisation or person-to-person communication started to find its roots. During this time, data traffic rose from 80 PB per month to about 2400 PB per month. The 2005-10 era saw the emergence of videos and social networking, which again pushed up data traffic to a new level. This was followed by the smartphone era and with the ongoing dominance of these devices, there has been a tremendous increase in data traffic volumes across the globe. This trend is expected to continue in the near future. As a result, telecom networks are likely to come under increasing stress.

Wireless demand

In terms of data traffic on wireless networks, the volume is estimated to grow from less than 1 exabyte (EB) per day in 2014 to 8 EB per day in 2020. A deeper analysis shows that audio and video streaming is expected to make up 79 per cent of the data traffic on wireless networks. The other important source of this demand is storage. This is because more and more enterprises and consumers are moving their data to the cloud. Communication, gaming and computing are some other significant sources of this demand. In addition, many countries are talking about concepts such as smart cities. Such initiatives are likely to give rise to internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine communication (M2M). With IoT and M2M, the bearer traffic will rise significantly.

The current networks have been designed to deal with bearer traffic that is predominantly generated from human-to-human interaction. However, with the rise in IoT and M2M technologies, a fundamental shift in the way networks are built is needed to handle this disruptive traffic. To this end, networks should be designed in a way that they can carry a combination of human and machine-generated data traffic.

India data story and outlook

India mirrors the global story as far as the rise in data traffic is concerned. The country witnessed a 50 per cent year-on-year growth in data traffic between December 2014 and December 2015. Currently,  the networks carry about 128 PB of data per month. This growth has been on account of three factors. First, operators have significantly ramped up their investment in expanding their footprint across the country. Second, devices have become more affordable and more easily available. Third, tariff plans have become simpler. These three factors have increased the adoption of 3G services in India, with 3G data accounting for about 64 per cent of the overall data traffic generated during 2015.

Interestingly, this growth was not specific to any demographic profile. It was uniform across the metros, and A, B and C category circles. This shows that data is beginning to gain mass-scale adoption. Further, data growth is no longer limited to smartphones. Smart devices have also slowly started gaining traction and are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 53 per cent over the next five years.

In terms of technology, spectrum in India is well segregated. However, a lot of remapping of technology to spectrum is taking place. Going forward, technologies such as carrier aggregation will become more mainstream.  Although India has traditionally been a spectrum-starved country, significant progress has been made in resolving this issue. With adequate availability of spectrum, operators will be able to plan their networks better.

Going forward, mobile data traffic is likely to grow further as operators launch long term evolution  networks while continuing to invest in strengthening their 3G networks.

Challenges and the way forward

As global mobile traffic continues to grow exponentially, it is crucial for telecom operators to plan their networks better in order to deliver an improved quality of service. With the introduction of latest technologies, the scale and complexity of networks is also increasing. Therefore, network latencies of single digit milliseconds are required to deliver a superior customer experience. In addition, achieving energy efficiency continues to be challenging. Cloud, software-defined and open source technologies will require flexibility and agility to be added to the networks.

In order to profitably deliver gigabytes of personalised data per user per day in a secure manner, it is imperative to build networks that can support up to 1,000 times more capacity. s

Based on a presentation by Tarvinder Singh, Head of Strategy, Nokia India