The Future Growth of the Internet, in One Chart (and One Graph)

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Global Internet traffic is expected to increase threefold over the next five years.

This morning Cisco released its annual Visual Networking Index, the report that tracks Internet traffic patterns from around the world. The document-meets-data-trove forecasts, among other things, broadband usage for two and three and four years from now. 

Below are Cisco's projections for Internet traffic over the next four years. One key milestone it encompasses: Cisco is predicting that global IP traffic will surpass 1.3 zettabytes in size by 2016. That's huge in every sense: A zettabyte is equal to a trillion gigabytes, or a sextillion bytes. Which is in turn equal to many, many bytes. (And 1.3 zettabytes is a per year stat: In terms of monthly traffic, citizens of the world of 2016 can expect traffic of 109.5 exabytes a month.) 

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Also notable is Cisco's projection that global IP traffic will increase threefold over the next five years. (That's after an eightfold increase over the past five years alone.) Particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, traffic growth will explode. And that, of course, will have social and economic and geopolitical ramifications -- some of which we can forecast, and others of which we can't yet imagine.

But the biggest story here, as it increasingly will be, is mobile. Mobile traffic will rise steadily and explosively over the next four years, Cisco projects. While the compound annual growth rates (CAGR) for fixed Internet and managed IP hover at 28 percent and 21 percent, respectively ... Cisco expects that the CAGR for mobile data will be a whopping 78 percent by 2016. The Internet, increasingly, will be portable.

A few caveats, however. Last year's VNI report put mobile at a 92 percent CAGR by 2015 -- so the new projected growth rates are conservative by comparison. And mobile's story is one of relative growth rather than absolute penetration: Mobile, of course, won't have overtaken its counterpart connections by 2016 -- far from it. Mobile is the blue line in the graph above; for all its growth, its penetration is still tiny compared to non-mobile Internet access. The trend lines past 2016 hint at mobile overtaking managed IP; for now, though -- and for the next four years -- it will likely remain the scrappy upstart of Internet connectivity.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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