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​We're gobbling more mobile data, and Americans are the biggest pigs

Ericsson's newest assessment of phone network usage shows insatiable demand for data. And just wait till 5G networks get here.

Increases in monthly mobile data usage show no signs of slowing.
Increases in monthly mobile data usage show no signs of slowing.

North America may be a mature market where the people most likely to buy a mobile phone have already done so. But the way we use those phones continues to change rapidly with explosive growth in data consumption.

Data traffic grew 60 percent worldwide from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016, continuing a trend that's been going on for years, according the newest mobility report from network equipment maker Ericsson, published Wednesday.

It estimated the quarter's monthly traffic at about 5.7 exabytes -- more than 5 million times the storage space on a modern PC hard drive. Video, social networking and audio streaming are the top tasks for data usage.

North Americans use the most data per phone, but the rest of the world is closing the gap.


To get an idea of why carriers have such a hard time keeping their networks up to scratch, note that during the same quarter five years ago, there was only something like a third of an exabyte of traffic. And more is coming: "Between 2015 and 2021, there will be 12X growth in smartphone traffic," Ericsson said.

North Americans were the biggest data consumers, using about 4GB of data per phone per month on average. Ericsson forecasts that in 2021, that'll surge to about 22GB per phone per month, so keep an eye on how close you're getting to your monthly limits. Western Europeans only use about half as much today, but they'll mostly catch up in the next five years, Ericsson said.

Ericsson also issued an early forecast for the shift away from today's fourth-generation (4G) mobile network technology, called LTE, which will begin in earnest in the next decade with the arrival of the first 5G networks. They'll bring faster speeds and lower battery usage starting in 2020 and reach 150 million subscribers in 2021.

Many people will use 5G not for phones, but rather as an alternative to fixed phone, cable, or fiber-optic lines for broadband, though. Fixed-line broadband should barely budge in the next year, while mobile broadband subscriptions surge from about 1 billion to 7.5 billion.