Over the past few weeks there have been a number of reports on the state of mobile broadband and the amount of mobile data being generated. While some of these reports have centred upon headline-grabbing figures aimed clearly at making the mobile industry panic, others have taken a more reserved approach. This fluctuation of figures is something that continually fascinates me and at times suggests a slight disconnect between the different bodies within the mobile ecosystem. Yet one of the key questions facing the industry is how to assimilate this data and find an effective middle path.

As the mobile industry continues to migrate to LTE and 4G technologies, there still appears to be some ambiguity as to whether these new networks will be able to accommodate the growing demand for bandwidth-intensive mobile applications, such as video conferencing, online gaming and audio streaming. However, some within the industry are suggesting that we’re overestimating demand and possibly creating a bandwidth glut. Looking at figures from Cisco’s latest VNI report though, there doesn’t appear to be any glut in sight. Indeed, Cisco expects mobile traffic to increase 26-fold by 2015 achieving a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 92%. Such significant growth will see monthly traffic reach a staggering 6.3 exabytes.

As a manufacturer of networking equipment, some would argue that Cisco has a bias to developing reports that aim for the higher echelon of data growth, but it’s not alone in forecasting such dramatic increases. Earlier this month, Limelight Networks released figures that revealed a 600% increase in mobile media requests in the first five months of 2011 as compared to the same time last year. Whichever way you look at this figure, the reaction is always the same. 600% growth in media requests is nothing short of phenomenal. Imagine the impact of these requests on network traffic. Sure, there's no question that media requests don’t necessarily translate to enormous data demands, but I’d expect a considerable portion of these requests to be driven by video content.

What’s encouraging here is that vendors and mobile carriers appear to be aligned in the growth they’re seeing. Sure the figures may be a little disproportionate but the arrow’s clearly pointing upwards. However, not everyone agrees with the speed or size of growth here. In an earlier post, I discussed research from Analysis Mason that suggested mobile data in Europe is only growing at 35% and is actually set to slow in 2011. Another research firm, Strategy Analytics, also suggests that we’re building too much headroom into our mobile networks and spending too much on network provisioning. Strategy Analytics even go so far to suggest that mobile carriers will have no financial issues meeting the required network investments and shouldn’t be overly worried. However, I’m sure there are many people without even basic 3G connectivity who would beg to differ with these findings.

Perhaps if all analysts were aligned in this reserved view of mobile growth, it would be easy to see a clear trend with vendors and carriers on one side and analysts on another. Yet one of the world’s largest information houses recently announced figures that suggest mobile carriers shouldn’t down tools anytime soon. Earlier last week, Nielsen released figures that show an 89% increase in smartphone usage in Q1 2011, compared to Q1 2010. This is significant growth and one that mirrors Vodafone’s 2010 research predicting an 88% year-on-year increase in mobile data.

So what do all these figures tell us about mobile traffic? Are we on the cusp of a mobile tsunami or is it more of a mobile squall? What’s undeniable from each source is that there is growth. While some analysts appear to be airing on the side of caution, vendors and mobile carriers tend to be taking a more generous view. What’s key is that we use these figures only as a guide to build an infrastructure that can cope with users’ demands to access content whenever and wherever they want. We must remember that data demand is only ever going to increase and we need to build our networks with this thought in mind.

Where do you stand on this debate? Whose figures should we believe and where is the middle ground? Do you believe the mobile tsunami is upon us or is this mere hype? What’s more, when will mobile data usage peak? Are we nearing that date? I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this one.