Small cell and WiFi systems will carry nearly 60 percent of all mobile traffic over the next five years, according to a new report from Juniper Research.
The advent of 3G and 4G network technologies, together with the introduction of smartphones and other connected devices such as tablets, game consoles and laptops, means that mobile data traffic has been growing at an unprecedented pace and is increasingly outstripping network capacity.
The report, entitled 'Mobile Data Offload & Onload: WiFi & Small Cell Strategies 2012-2016', states that while small cells were developed primarily to enhance network coverage, service providers are increasingly using them to offload data from these over-stretched mobile networks.
By offloading mobile data traffic onto available complementary networks, such as wireless local area networks (WiFi) or small cells (low-powered radio access nodes), operators can optimise the available network resources and reduce the bottlenecking of services.
Furthermore, as the report's author Nitin Bhas points out, the deployment of integrated cells offers further potential benefits to network operators beyond coverage improvement and congestion relief.
"With WiFi integrated small cells, seamless data services can be extended to non-cellular devices as well, such as cameras and WiFi-only tablets, offering operators the opportunity to develop new revenue streams", he said.
However, just as network operators attempt to offload data from mobile devices to the fixed network, users are increasingly "onloading" data from their fixed devices to the mobile network. For example, a user might connect their game console to the internet via a USB 3G modem.
This means that, while data offload alleviates some of the operator's network congestion, the offload could itself be offset by fixed-to-mobile migration of data. Juniper Research estimates that the total data onloaded onto the cellular network will reach 7,562PB per year by 2016.
Ofcom indicated last year that small cells, such as femtocells and microcells, will have to be incorporated into the 4G network infrastructure if mobile operators are to cope with the massive surge in demand for data.
However, carrier and vendor executives at the CTIA Wireless show earlier this year warned that setting up these radios and gleaning the promised impact from them will be harder than just buying equipment and finding spots that need more capacity.
Standardisation is still a work in progress, there may be hidden costs behind the relatively low prices of small cells and carriers may end up fighting over spots to set them up, they said.