Post-PC Era? Maybe Not

A recent announcement by Ericsson suggests that mobile data usage has tripled in the past year, with global mobile data traffic reaching almost 225,000 terabytes per month and the number of total devices on mobile networks at over five billion.

Ericsson, which expects to see 50 billion connected devices on mobile networks by 2020, backed up that assertion by noting the growth in its base station business: it took the company 20 years to reach the milestone of installing 1 million cell tower base stations, but it has installed a second million in the subsequent three years.

On one hand, it's easy to see why mobile data usage is increasing: The quality of the browsing experience has increased dramatically over the past few years.

In the past, mobile browsers were always better at repackaging a few key websites than they were at replicating the look and feel of a desktop browser. They also didn't support the same plug-in players favored by computer users, so rich media content-such as video on the mobile handset-was limited to content transferred from the desktop or very niche video delivery segments such as affluent sports fans (ESPN's MVNO) or breaking news highlights.

Video delivery sat in a separate application, often powered by Flo or Mobi, allowing service providers to segment delivery of video-and charge accordingly.

That began to change with the advent of the iPhone, which had a browsing experience almost equivalent to the desktop-almost, since it doesn't support the Flash player. It does, however, support standards-based H.264 video delivery via HTTP streaming or progressive download, and it came with an unlimited data plan, making the option of viewing rich media on a fairly robust mobile device not only feasible but also financially appealing to its tech-savvy, early-adopter customer base.

Since then, as more devices-including the Research In Motion Blackberry, newer WindowsMobile handsets, and Android-based devices-have moved toward desktop-equivalent browsing experiences, the amount of mobile data delivery has risen rapidly, and the consumption of mobile video has risen exponentially. 

Adobe's recent announcement that a full version of Adobe Flash Player is now available for each of the three devices mentioned above means that mobile video consumption on these devices will follow the rapid growth trend set by the iPhone.

The Post-PC Era?
But does this mean we're in a post-PC era, as Steve Jobs posited recently?

Not necessarily. Reading between the lines on a variety of surveys indicates that even desktop and laptop computers are moving towards mobile computing as their primary connection to the internet.

The flexibility and price of multi-user, Wi-Fi-enabled mobile data modems offers financially beneficial alternatives to in-home cable modems or DSL subscriber lines.

Data connectivity speeds on devices such as the MiFi or on handsets that can double as multi-user Wi-Fi access points-such as Palm WebOS -based handsets and several of Verizon's new Droid handsets-allows a specific demographic of users to use a single connectivity device, whether at home or on the road.

Early adopters attracted to these devices are also heavy video and rich media consumers, adding an additional level of strain to the average service provider's network capacity.

Offloading
In that light, the practice of offloading video content is going to be more important in the coming days. Offloading is a term used in the mobile industry for caching or moving content off the wireless network and back on to a wired network.

ABI Research, in a recent report on Mobile Network Offloading, calls out five key areas of network offloading: caching, femtocells, media optimization, mobile CDNs, and Wi-Fi devices. A sixth should also be added, given the move toward on-demand video content being delivered via HTTP: web accelerators.

ABI notes that, regardless of whether the content will be delivered to a mobile handset or a laptop equipped with a mobile card, the use of offloading technologies will require a concerted effort to handle mobile data growth.

"Each offload and optimization technology is aimed at solving a particular problem and they will all coexist," said Aditya Kaul, ABI Research's practice director. "For instance, Wi-Fi is effective in covering limited areas containing many users, such as transport stations and sports venues, but will not replace the need for femtocells."

For instance, the use of femtocells-small base stations that often can be solar-powered for use in congested or remote areas-is on the rise. The premise is that a femtocell can handle a small number of users, and would automatically offload heavy data users to these short-range femtocells-the type of scenario in which a laptop or even home desktop would be connected to the wireless network. 

Femtocells can, in turn, also work hand-in-hand with media optimization or caching devices, with content being delivered along wireline from a larger base station to nearby femtocells.

The key challenge is making the transitions between devices-main base stations, femtocells, WiFi-seamless and invisible for the end user.

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