The air is almost as thick with data as it once was with the smoke of the Industrial Revolution, with increasingly dense billows of bits traveling between the world's billions of mobile devices.
In 2010 alone, the amount of mobile data sent was 2.6 times what it was in 2009. And by 2015, people will send 26 times more mobile data than they do now, according to Cisco's annual Global Mobile Traffic Forecast.
That will mean 6.3 exabytes per month, said Suraj Shetty, Cisco's vice president of worldwide service provider marketing. "That's the equivalent of every man, woman and child on Earth sending 1,000 text messages every second," he said.
Yipes, better upgrade my plan!
Cisco says two-thirds of that data traffic will come from mobile video, as more people begin making video calls, sending each other clips they've recorded, and watching longer-form television and movies on their cellphones and tablets.
For a little perspective: Mobile traffic in 2010 was three times as large as all the world's combined Internet traffic in 2000. In short, mobile broadband is getting big -- everywhere.
"There are regions in the world where they have mobile Internet connectivity but are not on the electrical grid," said Doug Webster, Cisco's senior director of service provider marketing. "The Internet is breaking the electrical barrier."
The growth of mobile networks will come with an increase in wireless speeds too. The global average is about 200 kilobits per second now, but as more so-called 4G networks are erected around the world, the average will increase by a factor of 10, to about 2.2 megabits per second. That's on the low end of what home broadband brings today -- pretty astonishing, considering it includes mobile networks in all of the world's developing countries.
But not all of the data explosion is going to come from the rise in smart phones and tablets. In 2015, Cisco predicts, most of the mobile traffic will still come from laptops and netbooks (56%), while smart phones will account for about 27%, and tablets only about 3.5% of the traffic growth.
Cisco makes its predictions by pooling various sources, including data compiled by research firms, polling its own infrastructure of Internet servers, and sampling the data habits of more than 390,000 users who run Cisco's Global Internet Speed Test smart-phone application.
-- David Sarno
Photo: A giant bubble of interstellar gamma rays discovered by NASA's Fermi telescope. Credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr