Mobile phone use expected to top 5.5 billion devices by 2021

Cisco's newest Visual Networking Index forecasts strong growth in mobile phone usage will spur 4G growth worldwide, as well as fuel 5G deployments.

Cybersecurity in an IoT and Mobile World: 3 big factors

Globally, mobile phone use will increase 7-fold, reaching 5.5 billion devices by 2021, according to the 11th annual Cisco Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast.

"Mobile is the way to go. Increasingly, more and more people are getting connected to the mobile technology and in fact, as per our latest findings, there are more mobile users than there are people with running water and bank accounts in many countries around the globe," said Shruti Jain, senior analyst for Cisco. The world's population is projected to reach 7.8 billion by 2021, according to United Nations' estimates.

Mobile video is projected to substantially increase, with live video on mobile increasing 8.7-fold from 2016 to 2021, with the highest growth rate of any mobile applications category. Mobile video will represent 78% of all mobile traffic by 2021. In addition, live mobile video will grow 39-fold from 2016 to 2021. Live mobile video will represent 5% of total mobile video traffic by 2021.

"The 2021 number [for mobile video] is 122x the traffic that was generated in 2011. That's pretty fast-paced growth," Jain pointed out.

SEE: Mobile data traffic will increase 7-fold from 2016 to 2021, Cisco says (ZDNet)

By 2021, Cisco projects mobile data traffic will reach the following milestones:

  • Mobile data traffic to represent 20% of total IP traffic--up from 8% of total IP traffic in 2016.
  • 1.5 mobile devices per capita. Nearly 12 billion mobile-connected devices (up from 8 billion and 1.1 per capita in 2016), including machine-to-machine (M2M) modules.
  • Mobile network connection speeds will increase threefold from 6.8 Mbps in 2016 to 20.4 Mbps by 2021.
  • M2M connections will represent 29% (3.3 billion) of total mobile connections--up from 5% (780 million) in 2016. M2M will be the fastest growing mobile connection type, as global Internet of Things (IoT) applications continue to gain traction in consumer and business environments.
  • 4G will support 58% of total mobile connections by 2021--up from 26% in 2016 and will account for 79% of total mobile data traffic.
  • The total number of smartphones will be over 50% of global devices (6.2 billion)--up from 3.6 billion in 2016.

The rise in mobile applications and mobile connectivity is pushing continued growth of 4G, with 5G to follow. Globally by 2020, 2.3 million mobile devices will use 5G, and by 2021, there will be 25 million mobile devices on 5G. This will represent .02% of all devices that will have 5G connections, but there will be more use in the US, with nearly 1% of all mobile devices using 5G.

SEE: AT&T raises stakes on 5G, targets two cities for AirGig trials (TechRepublic)

"We are looking into 5G, especially now with there being several field tests going on. Verizon is doing that, and there are talks of providers in Korea and Japan doing field deployments. There are issues around 5G, primarily around spectrum allocation, monetization issues, and building of business cases around monetization, but we think by 2020 those issues will start getting results, and we do see introduction of 5G devices and connections starting in 2020," Jain said.

Cisco projects that 5G will account for 1.5% of total mobile data traffic by 2021 and will generate 4.7 times more traffic than the average 4G connection, and 10.7 times more traffic than the average 3G connection.

"There are some issues around 2G sunsetting. In North America and Asian countries there are moves made to sunset 2G altogether. Japan, Korea, and Australia have already done that. AT&T has already done that. Verizon plans to keep it some time longer, and T-Mobile hasn't announced when it will be sunsetting," Jain said. European countries will likely keep 2G longer than the rest of the world, Jain said, citing a survey from the GSM Association.

Wearables are another strong market, with global connected wearable devices driving M2M growth. Cisco forecasts that there will be 929 million wearables used throughout the world by 2021, up from 325 million in 2016. This includes fitness wearables and VR and AR headsets, Jain said.

SEE: CES 2017: Photos of the best wearables for business, fitness and sports (TechRepublic)

The report said that M2M will be the fastest growing mobile connection type as global IoT applications continue to gain traction in consumer and business environments.

Cellular connectivity is on the rise among wearables, and by 2021, 69 million, or about 7% of wearables, will have embedded cellular connectivity, with the rest using smartphones or tablets or PCs for connectivity. In 2016, only 11 million wearables have embedded cellular connectivity. "This is one of the growing segments that we continue to monitor because there are new specific devices coming into play," Jain said.

The growth in VR and AR is addressed in the forecast as well, with VR headsets predicted to grow from 18 million in 2016 to nearly 100 million by 2021. Globally, VR traffic will grow from 13.3 petabytes a month in 2016 to 140 petabytes a month in 2021. AR traffic will grow from 3 petabytes a month in 2016 to 21 petabytes a month in 2021.

There will also be more mobile data traffic offloaded to Wi-Fi networks, with 60% of mobile data traffic offloaded in 2016, growing to 63% by 2021. Public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the world will increase from 94 million to 541.6 million between 2016 and 2021.

The areas with the strongest mobile data traffic growth will be the Middle East and Africa, with 12-fold growth (2016: 7.3 exabytes/year; 2021: 88.4 exabytes/year), followed by Asia-Pacific with 7-fold growth (2016: 37.3 exabytes/year; 2021: 274.2 exabytes/year). North America will have 5-fold growth during this period (2016: 16.9 exabytes/year; 2021: 76.8 exabytes/year).

The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Global mobile phone use will increase 7-fold to 5.5 billion by 2021.
  2. Mobile video is projected to substantially increase, with live video on mobile increasing 8.7-fold from 2016 to 2021, representing 78% of all mobile traffic by 2021.
  3. Cisco forecasts the use of 929 million wearables used throughout the world by 2021, up from 325 million in 2016.

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By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included writing on s...