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It's about Bandwidth, not just Spectrum

Methodology is meat for wonks. We thrive on the variables that define a study’s results and augur dramatic changes ahead.

That’s why Cisco’s “Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2011 to 2016″ is so fascinating. It’s not just about the incredible numbers - 10 billion mobile devices for the globe’s 7.3 billion inhabitants within the next five years - but about the accelerating velocity of growth. And you can’t ignore the broader implications for all transmission options (including cable) - not just mobile/wireless. Moreover, Cisco’s study underscores the looming dominance of tablets as preferred media access tools.

As colleague Todd Spangler reported, Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index (VNI) shows that mobile video traffic, which now accounts for 52% of all wireless data usage, will grow 25-fold by 2016. By then mobile delivery to tablets, smartphones and other transportable devices will account for more than 70% of total mobile data traffic. Hence, it will be an even greater competitor to cable-delivered video than it is today.

Beyond those extraordinary bullish figures is the incredible change in just a year. In 2011, when Cisco issued its forecast for 2015, it predicted that we’d be using 6.3 exabytes per month. Now it’s saying that the 2015 figure will be 6.9 exabytes (an increase of nearly 10% from last year’s estimate) and that by 2016 usage will grow to 10.8 exabytes per month, an annual 56% jump. (An exabyte is equal to one quintillion bytes; that’s a billion-billion bytes or 10 to the 18th power, compared for example to a gigabyte, which is 10 to the 9th power. Basically: a lot of data.)

Not only does that amount of mobile video consumption represent incredible growth, but Cisco’s benchmark change from last year’s figures goes well beyond spreadsheet manipulation. It underscores the fundamental role that wireless/mobile will play in the bandwidth battles ahead.

Cisco’s latest mobile forecast is punctuation to the company’s major VNI, which comes out in June and encompasses wireless as well as hard-wired broadband usage. Cisco timed its February wireless forecast so that it’s a conversational theme at next week’s big World Mobile Congress in Barcelona The report also coincided, within about a day, of Congress’s “spectrum compromise” that could pave the way for more U.S. wireless allocations, which would help fulfill Cisco’s usage predictions.

Arielle Sumits, a Cisco analyst who worked on the massive report, told me that the reason for the semiannual update of the wireless segment is that “mobile moves rapidly” compared to landline broadband growth. She pointed out that Cisco now expects tablets and smartphones to drive more traffic than laptops.

“Last year we thought laptops would [access] about half of the traffic,” she said. Now she expects that the laptop segment will drop to 37% in 2015 and just 24% in 2016. Sumits emphasized the “media centric” role of tablets is now being heavily factored into the Cisco projections.

In its detailed analysis, Cisco also points to the continuing importance of WiFi, which will represent 80% of mobile traffic by 2015. Sumits says the VNI’s look at 3G and 4G traffic also includes WiFi “to get a sense of how much is offloaded.”

“When we looked at all portable devices, we found that by 2015, WiFi will still be a five times higher quantity of traffic than 4G or 3G,” she said.

As I wandered through Cisco’s bullish outlook, I recognized the subtle distinctions between “wireless” and “mobile” delivery, two terms that are often used interchangeably. They represent different aspects of the unwired world - and more importantly, underscore the important role of WiFi and other fixed services in the arsenal of cable and telco providers.

Cisco has been predicting the overwhelming role of video in the broadband delivery mix for more than a year. Its latest bullish outlook underscores the inevitability of wireless video service in the broadband battle.

That means competition based on technology - but also on pricing, quality of service and accessibility. The insatiable appetite for video content requires that facilities of all technologies must be prepared for the onslaught of demand via whatever routes appeal to viewers.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com