Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica recently wrote an article about Cisco’s latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast (pdf). In it Cisco claims that worldwide mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Obviously, Cisco is in the networking business, so they have some incentive to make the future of networking look good, but even if they are only half right, that’s a huge increase.
The most compelling piece of this story for me is summarized by two lines in the executive summary:
Average smartphone usage doubled in 2010. The average amount of traffic per smartphone in 2010 was 79 MB per month, up from 35 MB per month in 2009.
Smartphones represent only 13 percent of total global handsets in use today, but they represent over 78 percent of total global handset traffic. In 2010, the typical smartphone generated 24 times more mobile data traffic (79 MB per month) than the typical basic-feature cell phone (which generated only 3.3 MB per month of mobile data traffic).
Prior to getting an iPhone, I spent about 6 years using a simple Nokia phone. It was my primary phone, and I used it almost exclusively for phone calls. Put simply, the way I interacted with computers fundamentally changed when I got an iPhone. The best analogy I can think of is when my family bought our first home computer. I knew what computers were before getting one, and I knew how to use them to some degree. However, I didn’t realize the impact they could have on my life until the first day I spent on that home computer. I believe the same is true for anyone going from a standard phone to a smart phone. In fact, I believe this is the minimum we should predict if Cisco is right.
How many people will experience a similar transition as a result of those two points I highlighted from the executive summary of the Cisco report? Smart phones are better than computers for numerous activities, and phones are being used for an increasing number of things that were traditionally desktop-only or laptop-only. More importantly, smart phones are only 13 percent of the total mobile phone market. Add this to the fact that mobile phones are the only real connection to the Internet for much of the world, and it becomes pretty clear that we’re still at the beginning of the computer revolution.
We can (and should) also think about Cisco’s prediction in global terms, but finding the best analogy to describe the sort of change that Cisco is predicting is hard. One way to think about it is by comparing it to previous instances where practical access to education, information, and participation was granted to large populations over a short period of time. Prior to both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement in the United States, we were basically limiting our “best and brightest” to at most a third of our society. Quite simply, by limiting access to higher education and acceptance of certain races or genders in society, we limit human innovation. The digital divide is another fundamental limitation to human innovation, and bridging this divide could change the world just as much as the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement. (See also this book I read several years ago.)
Consider the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. He was born in India in 1887. His family was not particularly well-off, but given just a little access to basic information, he became a world-renown mathematician. Here’s Wikipedia:
By age 11, he had exhausted the mathematical knowledge of two college students who were lodgers at his home. He was later lent a book on advanced trigonometry written by S. L. Loney. He completely mastered this book by the age of 13 and discovered sophisticated theorems on his own.
By 14, he was receiving merit certificates and academic awards which continued throughout his school career and also assisted the school in the logistics of assigning its 1200 students (each with their own needs) to its 35-odd teachers. He completed mathematical exams in half the allotted time, and showed a familiarity with infinite series.
When he was 16, Ramanujan came across the book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics by George S. Carr. This book was a collection of 5000 theorems, and it introduced Ramanujan to the world of mathematics. The next year, he had independently developed and investigated the Bernoulli numbers and had calculated Euler’s constant up to 15 decimal places. His peers of the time commented that they “rarely understood him” and “stood in respectful awe” of him.
Obviously, not everyone can be a mathematical genius or even a genius of any kind, but the fact remains that there are many people in the world who currently never even have a chance to be one simply because they don’t have access. This could change rapidly if Cisco’s prediction turns out to be accurate. Here’s another fascinating tidbit from the report:
There are 48 million people in the world who have mobile phones, even though they do not have electricity at home. The mobile network has extended beyond the boundaries of the power grid.
This might be even more stunning than the prediction that mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Cicso discusses this further later in the report:
One of the most astonishing developments of the past few years has been the extension of mobile services even beyond the boundaries of the power grid. Mobile phones are reaching every corner of the earth. There are already 32 countries where mobile data has broken the electricity barrier. By the end of 2011, this effect will be visible at the regional level, when the total number of mobile users in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia exceeds the total on-grid population in those regions. By the end of 2013, the number of mobile users in the Middle East will exceed the Middle Eastern on-grid population, and by 2015 the number of mobile users in South Asia (India and surrounding countries) will exceed the South Asian on-grid population.
Thinking of this dramatic change in terms of the absolute best and the brightest may not the best way to frame the debate. It is probably better to think about how this growth in mobile data traffic could affect the ‘average’ person in the world. In 2006, only about 27% of the people in the United States had a college education. To many Americans, this seems extremely low. To much of the rest of the world, it seems like an unattainable pipe dream. Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with using this metric as an absolute goal because a college education isn’t an end in and of itself; it’s a means to an end. Still, education is extremely important to society. What would it look like for the average person on the planet to have access to higher education materials? Even if they never end up getting a piece of paper to hang on the wall, simply having access to the information itself would dramatically change lives.
In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted a multi-lateral treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This treaty attempted to establish education as a ‘right’ of humanity. Sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to see everyone have every educational opportunity they desire? In reality though, education isn’t a right; it’s an economic good. It costs both time and money. Simply saying education should be viewed as a right in a treaty doesn’t change economic reality. One amazing potential result of Cisco’s prediction is that education could become a lot less expensive for a huge number of people on the planet. An increase in mobile communications by a factor of 26 in the next four years would do more for education than the UN’s treaty did in the last four decades.
Genuine political freedom may also become a lot less expensive. I haven’t seen a great article about this yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to an in-depth analysis of how communications technology impacted the recent protests and revolutions in Northern Africa. It clearly played a critical role, and I’m not sure we fully understand the implications of this yet. Furthermore, we must understand what this means if we’re to predict how the sort of increase in mobile communications that Cisco predicts would change the world. How much of the world would be able to organize relatively peaceful revolutions away from authoritarian leaders and towards a more free and open society four years from now? I’m not qualified to make this prediction, but it’s another possible result.
If Cisco is right about mobile data traffic exploding by a factor of 26 in the next four years, then can we really even begin to make predictions with even a remote chance at accuracy? I don’t think we can. The best we can do is be optimistic about the future, and I think we have a lot of reason to be optimistic.