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Step Aside BYOD, There’s a Bigger, Badder WLAN Challenge on the Horizon: Network Traffic Planning
by L. Phifer

While IT admins are losing sleep over smartphone and tablet (in)security, there’s a bigger, badder challenge on the horizon: wireless network traffic planning.

As noted in my earlier post, “Quantifying BYOD impact,” a tidal wave of smartphone and table Wi-Fi clients will be injecting a LOT MORE traffic onto enterprise WLANs. This month at Interop Las Vegas 2013, attendees peppered panelists with questions about both wireless and wired-side capacity planning, including backhaul upgrades needed to sustain the load as clients migrate from 802.11g/n to 802.11ac.

It’s tempting to answer with basic calculations – for example, max 450 Mbps per 1x1 smartphone or max 1.3 Gbps x 2 per dual-band AP in the first phase of 802.11ac. But it’s also important to consider where the fastest-growing segment of the Wi-Fi client population is heading.

Smartphone and Tablet Traffic Loads

Cisco recently published a report, “Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update” with quite a few humbling statistics:

To put these numbers into a Wi-Fi context, Cisco puts the global average daily data consumption over Wi-Fi at 4 times that of cellular: 55 MB per day over Wi-Fi versus 13 MB over mobile broadband. From these numbers, it’s clear that the total traffic load generated by smartphones and tablets (BYOD and otherwise) is climbing fast – and not just because cellular and Wi-Fi data rates are increasing.

Adding Wi-Fi Offload to the Mix

In addition, there’s another way in which smartphone/tablet growth will be increasing WLAN traffic: cellular offload. According to Cisco’s report, 33 percent (429 petabytes) of total mobile data traffic was offloaded onto the fixed network through Wi-Fi or femtocell in 2012. In all, offload represented about 25 percent of last year’s traffic growth that would otherwise have been carried by mobile broadband.

Further, Cisco predicts that by 2017, nearly 21 exabytes of mobile broadband data traffic per month will be offloaded through Wi-Fi and femtocells. According to the report:

“Without Wi-Fi and femtocell offload, total mobile data traffic would grow at a CAGR of 74 percent between 2012 and 2017 (16-fold growth), instead of the projected CAGR of 66 percent (13-fold growth). For users with fixed broadband and Wi-Fi access points at home, or for users served by operator-owned femtocells and picocells, a sizable proportion of traffic generated by mobile and portable devices is offloaded from the mobile network onto the fixed network. The amount of traffic offloaded from smartphones will be 46 percent in 2017, and the amount of traffic offloaded from tablets will be 71 percent in 2017.”

Bottom Line

It’s not going to be easy to keep up with rapidly rising demand for Wi-Fi bandwidth, but doing so proactively will require real capacity planning. Don’t rely exclusively on back-of-the-napkin max data rate calculations.

New traffic loads may well originate from many different devices, for many different reasons. So put tools such as AirMagnet Enterprise, AirMagnet Survey and AirMagnet Planner in place to routinely measure the actual performance of your WLAN and use historical data for trend analysis and upgrade planning.

  • Globally, mobile broadband data traffic grew 70 percent in 2012, reaching 885 petabytes per month. That’s roughly 12 times the load carried by the entire Internet back in 2000!
  • Average smartphone usage nearly doubled in 2012, leaping from 189 MB/month to 342 MB/month, with 4G devices generating 19 times more traffic than other mobile broadband connections.
  • The mobile-broadband-connected tablet population increased 2.5-fold in 2012, with each tablet generating 2.4 times the traffic (820 MB/month) versus the average smartphone.
  • *Cisco predicts that the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2013, and the average mobile connection speed will top 1 Mbps in 2014.

Related WLAN Resources
AirMagnet Enterprise v10 w/SmartEdge Sensor Series 4: Best Mobile and Wireless Solution Bronze Award – Network Products Guide Awards 2013
On-Demand Webcast: Tired of Walking the Floor? Survey in Half the Time
Case Study: InnerWireless, a Black Box Company
Wireless Survey Demo

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