The growth of mobile data traffic is slowing worldwide, calling into question the notion that cellular networks need to be allocated yet more spectrum.

In the run-up to the World Radiocommunication Conference in Dubai later this year, new reports by the OECD[1], Analysys Mason[2] and Ericsson[3] all show a slowdown in mobile traffic growth. These figures further weaken the already fragile case for identifying the upper 6 GHz band (6425-7125 MHz) for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) rather than using this spectrum to meet the urgent need for more capacity for Wi-Fi.

The annual growth in global cellular data traffic slowed from more than 90% in 2018 to 34% in 2021 and again to about 22% in 2022, according to Analysys Mason. Data usage per mobile broadband subscription in OECD countries grew a modest 17% in 2022, compared to an average annual growth rate of 29% between 2017 and 2021, according to an OECD report published in July 2023. Even the latest Ericsson Mobility Report shows global mobile data traffic grew 36% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023 – the lowest figure for at least seven years.

5G has not propelled the cellular data usage that was expected. As Analysys Mason notes, the telecoms industry’s fixation “with a constant and dramatic increase in data consumption by cellular network users” is out of date. “Vendors and operators need to prepare for a period of more conservative mobile data traffic growth rates and plan for more targeted investment focused on isolated pockets of demand,” it adds.

If the relatively high traffic levels generated by fixed wireless access (FWA) networks are stripped out of the figures, the growth rate is significantly lower. Ericsson says FWA data traffic represented 21% of global mobile data traffic at the end of 2022 and will be about 30% of total mobile data traffic in 2028.

 

The full 6 GHz band is needed for Wi-Fi

Given the relatively short distances radio signals travel in the 6 GHz band, the spectrum isn’t ideal for extending 5G coverage. By contrast, the spectrum is ideal for Wi-Fi, which can work in tandem with FWA services. Indeed, the strong demand for fixed broadband is a good reason for making the entire 6 GHz band licence-exempt and available for use by Wi-Fi, which provides the vital link between a building’s broadband connection and its occupants’ devices.

In absolute terms, the ongoing increase in fixed traffic is much greater than the increase in mobile traffic. In the UK, for example, the average monthly traffic per fixed connection rose by 29 GB in 2022 to 482 GB, according to regulator Ofcom, while the average monthly traffic per mobile connection rose by 1.5 GB to just over 8 GB, according to the OECD. Although there are three times as many mobile connections as fixed connections in the UK, the absolute growth in total fixed traffic is still more than six times the absolute growth in total mobile traffic.

As Analysys Mason points out, most potential future drivers of traffic growth, such as higher definition video and TV services, virtual reality and the metaverse, will rely heavily on fixed broadband (and Wi-Fi) rather than mobile networks.

A new study by Plum[4] found that no country has assigned all the available spectrum to mobile networks, with the majority allocating less than half of identified IMT spectrum.

Administrations should, of course, take note of the new data when deciding whether 6425-7125 MHz should be identified for IMT, which would mean withdrawing this band from the use of incumbent services, as well as new services enabled by the already existing and growing Wi-Fi ecosystem.

It is now crystal clear that the very optimistic assumptions made by the mobile community to justify the request to identify the upper 6 GHz band for IMT simply aren’t valid. No Change in the status of the spectrum would give administrations the flexibility to harness this prime spectrum to meet the ongoing connectivity needs of their citizens rather than to prepare for mobile traffic growth that is very unlikely to happen.

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Dr Pasquale Cataldi, Associate Director, Policy Impact Partners

 

[1] https://www.oecd.org/digital/broadband/broadband-statistics/

[2] https://www.analysysmason.com/research/content/articles/cellular-data-traffic-rdnt0/

[3] https://www.ericsson.com/en/reports-and-papers/mobility-report

[4] https://gsoasatellite.com/wp-content/uploads/Examining-the-current-assignment-and-usage-of-mobile-spectrum.pdf