Once upon a time, Goldilocks was walking through the woods. She came upon a small cottage and went inside, intending to rest a little while before continuing on her journey. She wanted to watch a movie to help herself relax, but the cottage did not have cable TV. However, it did have excellent LTE coverage and three LTE-enabled data devices: a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone.

First, Goldilocks tried to stream the movie over the smartphone. The playback was okay, with decent audio and an acceptable frame rate, but the screen was too small to let her see all the action, and the smartphone’s battery died after only an hour or so.

Then Goldilocks watched the movie on the laptop. The screen was large and colorful, but the laptop was too large and heavy to carry around the cottage for any length of time.

Finally, Goldilocks tried the tablet. It was just right. The screen size was perfect for watching video, the battery life was reasonable, and the device was perfectly portable. Goldilocks was able to watch the entire movie without a problem, until the three bears came home and complained about Goldilocks using up their entire data plan for the month.

The Moral of the Story

When we look at the changes in wireless data usage over the years, we see a number of factors driving an almost exponential increase in data traffic:

  • The growing number of wireless subscribers (nearly half the world’s population is connected wirelessly today).
  • The increased coverage offered by wireless networks (half the world’s population will be served by LTE networks in just a few years).
  • The rapid uptake of LTE service and devices (the transition to LTE from 3G is happening at a much faster rate than the switch from 2G to 3G).
  • LTE’s superior performance relative to other cellular data technologies, which enables the use of real-time and high-bandwidth applications like voice and video.
  • Increased competition between operators, which reduces the costs associated with wireless services.

All of these have had a tangible effect on how many subscribers use LTE and other wireless networks, how often they connect, how long they stay connected, and how much data they consume. But there is an additional factor that can have a dramatic effect on network usage, but which is not always fully appreciated by operators and vendors: the influence of the data device itself.

On June 29, 2007, Apple’s iPhone became available to the public for the first time. It was (and still is) a phenomenally successful product line, and the iPhone is now into its fifth generation. What wasn’t particularly obvious to the public at the time was the effect the iPhone had on the underlying wireless network infrastructure. Data usage shot through the roof that weekend, necessitating a very rapid rollout of additional network capacity to keep up with the demand, and now, nearly seven years later, wireless data consumption shows no sign of slowing down.

What was it about the iPhone that had such a dramatic effect on the network? The original iPhone wasn’t a particularly leading-edge device from an RF perspective. Its real impact was more social than technical: the iPhone made using wireless data easy and sexy, and its support for a seemingly infinite number of third-party applications encouraged its users to stay connected and talk, text, watch and play all day long. The iPhone didn’t change the technology; it changed how people use the technology.

Where is this phenomenon taking us? There are a large number of players trying to beat Apple at their own game, with varying levels of success (Samsung is arguably the market leader now), and part of that competitive effort is finding the next “gotta have it” form factor that encourages subscribers to use the system even more. Tablets, in many minds, fill that niche very well. They have larger screens and more processing power than smartphones, better battery life than laptops, and they are light enough and small enough to carry around throughout the day, encouraging continued use.

The availability of tablets has the potential to change how subscribers use the network, especially with respect to the types of services they access on a daily basis. Video content, in particular, is poised to become wildly successful, especially when paired with the right device. As a consequence, however, network designers and planners need to be aware of how the device mix on their networks is changing, and how that in turn changes the overall demand for data. The device vendors are trying to design the next iPhone; the operators need to be ready for whatever that turns out to be.