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Data demand: Hiding in plain sight?


Understandably, data traffic gets a lot of press these days – but its relative, data demand, gets much less attention, even though it is an equally interesting metric, although inherently more difficult to measure.

The limited interest in the demand dimension may be due to the fact that we implicitly assume that usage reflects demand – at least for those who have the devices and can afford paying their mobile bill. (In fact the device is the only truly necessary requirement – with Wi-Fi there is a lot you can do with a smartphone without a cellular connection; most of us are sufficiently satisfied with our Wi-Fi only tablets). So in many case the issue of demand is linked to underserved market segments.

This is clearly a big issue, but not the one I am thinking about: the demand for data for subscribers who have one or more connected devices, as opposed to their data usage. If we lived in an environment where free connections are always available and have infinite bandwidth, and the battery in the handset never runs out, we could assume that usage and demand are the same for all practical purposes.

But this is not the environment in which we live. First there is cost (see graph below). It is true that most of us only use a small part of our data allowance, but we could reasonably expect that if prices were lower (or plans more generous), we would use more data. This is a reason why traffic from many mobile users increases as they step into a free Wi-Fi hotspot, or connect from the home or office Wi-Fi network.


Second, capacity and coverage are limited, and this constraints our ability to use data. Probably we all have given up searching for some information because the network is slow, or arrived at a destination before the map application was able to give directions, or know about a few downtown places where trying to watch a video can only lead to frustration.  As cost, limited network availability creates a gap between our data usage and our desired data usage.

I have written an article for FierceWireless on how to correlate data demand and data usage, but, as you may expect, there is no simple way to estimate to data demand.

So let me ask for your feedback (you can comment here or email me): how big of a gap do you think there is between usage and demand? Is it sufficiently big to be relevant when, for instance, we want to forecast future usage (and expect it to be driven by current usage, but also by unmet demand)?  If we were to look at our experience and that of those living around us, how much disparity is there between your current usage, and the traffic you’d generate if cost, and network availability and capacity (within the limits of what today’s technology and spectrum can deliver) did not limit your activities?

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