Tag Archives: Internet Traffic

AT&T’s Exaflood Acquisition Good for Mobile Consumers and Internet Growth

AT&T’s announced purchase of T-Mobile is an exaflood acquisition — a response to the overwhelming proliferation of mobile computers and multimedia content and thus network traffic. The iPhone, iPad, and other mobile devices are pushing networks to their limits, and AT&T literally could not build cell sites (and acquire spectrum) fast enough to meet demand for coverage, capacity, and quality. Buying rather than building new capacity improves service today (or nearly today) — not years from now. It’s a home run for the companies — and for consumers.

We’re nearing 300 million mobile subscribers in the U.S., and Strategy Analytics estimates by 2014 we’ll add an additional 60 million connected devices like tablets, kiosks, remote sensors, medical monitors, and cars. All this means more connectivity, more of the time, for more people. Mobile data traffic on AT&T’s network rocketed 8,000% in the last four years. Remember that just a decade ago there was essentially no wireless data traffic. It was all voice traffic. A few rudimentary text applications existed, but not much more. By year-end 2010, AT&T was carrying around 12 petabytes per month of mobile traffic alone. The company expects another 8 to 10-fold rise over the next five years, when its mobile traffic could reach 150 petabytes per month. (We projected this type of growth in a series of reports and articles over the last decade.)

The two companies’ networks and businesses are so complementary that AT&T thinks it can achieve $40 billion in cost savings. That’s more than the $39-billion deal price. Those huge efficiencies should help keep prices low in a market that already boasts the lowest prices in the world (just $0.04 per voice minute versus, say, $0.16 in Europe).

But those who focus only on the price of existing products (like voice minutes) and traditional metrics of “competition,” like how many national service providers there are, will miss the boat. Pushing voice prices down marginally from already low levels is not the paramount objective. Building fourth generation mobile multimedia networks is. Some wonder whether “consolidation of power could eventually lead to higher prices than consumers would otherwise see.” But “otherwise” assumes a future that isn’t going to happen. T-Mobile doesn’t have the spectrum or financial wherewithal to deploy a full 4G network. So the 4G networks of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint (in addition to Clearwire and LightSquared) would have been competing against the 3G network of T-Mobile. A 3G network can’t compete on price with a 4G network because it can’t offer the same product. In many markets, inferior products can act as partial substitutes for more costly superior products. But in the digital world, next gen products are so much better and cheaper than the previous versions that older products quickly get left behind. Could T-Mobile have milked its 3G network serving mostly voice customers at bargain basement prices? Perhaps. But we already have a number of low-cost, bare-bones mobile voice providers.

The usual worries from the usual suspects in these merger battles go like this: First, assume a perfect market where all products are commodities, capacity is unlimited yet technology doesn’t change, and competitors are many. Then assume a drastic reduction in the number of competitors with no prospect of new market entrants. Then warn that prices could spike. It’s a story that may resemble some world, but not the one in which we live.

The merger’s boost to cell-site density is hugely important and should not be overlooked. Yes, we will simultaneously be deploying lots of new Wi-Fi nodes and femtocells (little mobile nodes in offices and homes), which help achieve greater coverage and capacity, but we still need more macrocells. AT&T’s acquisition will boost its total number of cell sites by 30%. In major markets like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, the number of AT&T cell sites will grow by 25%-45%. In many areas, total capacity should double.

It’s not easy to build cell sites. You’ve got to find good locations, get local government approvals, acquire (or lease) the sites, plan the network, build the tower and network base station, connect it to your long-haul network with fiber-optic lines, and of course pay for it. In the last 20 years, the number of U.S. cell sites has grown from 5,000 to more than 250,000, but we still don’t have nearly enough. CEO Randall Stephenson says the T-Mobile purchase will achieve almost immediately a network expansion that would have taken five years through AT&T’s existing organic growth plan. Because of the nature of mobile traffic — i.e., it’s mobile and bandwidth is shared — the combination of the two networks should yield a more-than-linear increase in quality improvements. The increased cell-site density will give traffic planners much more flexibility to deliver high-capacity services than if the two companies operated separately.

The U.S. today has the most competitive mobile market in the world (second, perhaps, only to tiny Hong Kong). Yes, it’s true, even after the merger, the U.S. will still have a more “competitive” market than most. But “competition” is often not the most — or even a very — important metric in these fast moving markets. In periods of undershoot, where a technology is not good enough to meet demand on quantity or quality, you often need integration to optimize the interfaces and the overall experience, a la the hand-in-glove paring of the iPhone’s hardware, software, and network. Streaming a video to a tiny piece of plastic in your pocket moving at 60 miles per hour — with thousands of other devices competing for the same bandwidth — is not a commodity service. It’s very difficult. It requires millions of things across the network to go just right. These services often take heroic efforts and huge sums of capital just to make the systems work at all.

Over time technologies overshoot, markets modularize, and small price differences matter more. Products that seem inferior but which are “good enough” then begin to disrupt state-of-the art offerings. This was what happened to the voice minute market over the last 20 years. Voice-over-IP, which initially was just “good enough,” made voice into a commodity. Competition played a big part, though Moore’s law was the chief driver of falling prices. Now that voice is close to free (though still not good enough on many mobile links) and data is king, we see the need for more integration to meet the new challenges of the multimedia exaflood. It’s a never ending, dynamic cycle. (For much more on this view of technology markets, see Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen).

The merger will have its critics, but it seriously accelerates the coming of fourth generation mobile networks and the spread of broadband across America.

— Bret Swanson

Mobile traffic grew 159% in 2010 . . . Tablets giving big boost

Among other findings in the latest version of Cisco’s always useful Internet traffic updates:

  • Mobile data traffic was even higher in 2010 than Cisco had projected in last year’s report. Actual growth was 159% (2.6x) versus projected growth of 149% (2.5x).
  • By 2015, we should see one mobile device per capita . . . worldwide. That means around 7.1 billion mobile devices compared to 7.2 billion people.
  • Mobile tablets (e.g., iPads) are likely to generate as much data traffic in 2015 as all mobile devices worldwide did in 2010.
  • Mobile traffic should grow at an annual compound rate of 92% through 2015. That would mean 26-fold growth between 2010 and 2015.

International Broadband Comparison, continued

New numbers from Cisco allow us to update our previous comparison of actual Internet usage around the world. We think this is a far more useful metric than the usual “broadband connections per 100 inhabitants” used by the OECD and others to compile the oft-cited world broadband rankings.

What the per capita metric really measures is household size. And because the U.S. has more people in each household than many other nations, we appear worse in those rankings. But as the Phoenix Center has noted, if each OECD nation reached 100% broadband nirvana — i.e., every household in every nation connected — the U.S. would actually fall from 15th to 20th. Residential connections per capita is thus not a very illuminating measure.

But look at the actual Internet traffic generated and consumed in the U.S.

The U.S. far outpaces every other region of the world. In the second chart, you can see that in fact only one nation, South Korea, generates significantly more Internet traffic per user than the U.S. This is no surprise. South Korea was the first nation to widely deploy fiber-to-the-x and was also the first to deploy 3G mobile, leading to not only robust infrastructure but also a vibrant Internet culture. The U.S. dwarfs most others.

If the U.S. was so far behind in broadband, we could not generate around twice as much network traffic per user compared to nations we are told far exceed our broadband capacity and connectivity. The U.S. has far to go in a never-ending buildout of its communications infrastructure. But we invest more than other nations, we’ve got better broadband infrastructure overall, and we use broadband more — and more effectively (see the Connectivity Scorecard and The Economist’s Digital Economy rankings) — than almost any other nation.

The conventional wisdom on this one is just plain wrong.

Chronically Critical Broadband Country Comparisons

With the release of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, we continue to hear all sorts of depressing stories about the sorry state of American broadband Internet access. But is it true?

International comparisons in such a fast-moving arena as tech and communications are tough. I don’t pretend it is easy to boil down a hugely complex topic to one right answer, but I did have some critical things to say about a major recent report that got way too many things wrong. A new article by that report’s author singled out France as especially more advanced than the U.S. To cut through all the clutter of conflicting data and competing interpretations on broadband deployment, access, adoption, prices, and speeds, however, maybe a simple chart will help.

Here we compare network usage. Not advertised speeds, which are suspect. Not prices which can be distorted by the use of purchasing power parity (PPP). Not “penetration,” which is largely a function of income, urbanization, and geography. No, just simply, how much data traffic do various regions create and consume.

If U.S. networks were so backward — too sparse, too slow, too expensive — would Americans be generating 65% more network traffic per capita than their Western European counterparts?


The Wall Street Journal‘s Digits blog asks, “Could Verizon Handle Apple Tablet Traffic?”

The tablet’s little brother, the iPhone, has already shown how an explosion in data usage can overload a network, in this case AT&T’s. And the iPhone is hardly the kind of data guzzler the tablet is widely expected to be. After all, it’s one thing to squint at movies on a 3.5-inch screen and quite another to watch them in relatively cinematic 10 inches.

“Clearly this is an issue that needs to be fixed,” says Broadpoint Amtech analyst Brian Marshall. “It can grind the networks to a halt.”

Two-year study finds fast changing Web

See our brief review of Arbor Networks’ new two-year study where they captured and analyzed 264 exabytes of Internet traffic. Highlights:

  • Internet traffic growing at least 45% annually.
  • Web video jumped to 52% of all Internet traffic from 42%.
  • P2P, although still substantial, dropped more than any other application.
  • Google, between 2007 and 2009, jumped from outside the top-ten global ISPs by traffic volume to the number 3 spot.
  • Comcast jumped from outside the top-ten to number 6.
  • Content delivery networks (CDNs) are now responsible for around 10% of global Internet traffic.
  • This fast-changing ecosystem is not amenable to rigid rules imposed from a central authority, as would be the case under “net neutrality” regulation.

Arbor’s new Net traffic report: “This is just the beginning…”

See this comprehensive new Web traffic study from Arbor Networks — “the largest study of global Internet traffic since the start of the commercial Internet.” 


Internet is at an inflection point

Transition from focus on connectivity to content
Old global Internet economic models are evolving
New entrants are reshaping definition / value of connectivity

New technologies are reshaping definition of network
“Web” / Desktop Applications, Cloud computing, CDN

Changes mean significant new commercial, security and engineering challenges

This is just the beginning…

These conclusions and the data Arbor tracked and reported largely followed our findings, projections, and predictions from two years ago:

And an update from this spring:

Also see our analysis from last winter highlighting the evolution of content delivery networks — what my colleague George Gilder dubbed “storewidth” back in 1999 — and which Arbor now says is the fastest growing source/transmitter of Net traffic.

Internet traffic update: right on the nose

As nearly every indicator of economic growth plummets, the Net maintains its rise. Given my research on the growth of the Internet, I’m always interested in the latest data. Here are year-end estimates, courtesy of Andrew Odlyzko at the University of Minnesota.

Monthly U.S. traffic by year-end 2008 was about 1.5 exabytes (10^18) per month, for an annual growth rate of around 50-60%. (An exabyte is a million terabytes, or a billion gigabytes.) My research suggests the Net should continue to grow at an annual compound rate of around 56% through 2015.