Cisco’s 2013 Global Mobile Visual Networking Index (VNI) once again shows that mobile networking traffic continues to rise.  Big picture:   by 2017, global mobile data traffic will reach unprecedented levels of 11.1 exabytes per month.  That’s the highest projection we’ve ever made in the Global Mobile VNI.  It’s the same story in the United States.  By 2017, mobile data traffic will reach new highs of 1.96 exabytes per month.  To put this in context, that’s the equivalent of 491 million DVDs each month or 5,410 million text messages each second.

As we dig deeper inside the numbers, we’re also seeing a couple of key trends that are a result of changes in how consumers are using their mobile devices.

First, the 2013 Global Mobile VNI has called out a significant shift globally away from consumers using laptops to access mobile networks. This shift is particularly important because data traffic from mobile-enabled laptops generates much more data traffic than smartphones or tablets.  While this shift is most pronounced in Western Europe, we’re seeing the same trends globally, including here in the United States.

Second, our 2013 study dramatically illustrates a more rapidly evolving shift toward accessing the Internet through Wi-Fi/Fixed networks, commonly known as “Wi-Fi offloading.”   By 2017, the study projects 46% of global mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi.  Compare that to last year, when we projected that by 2016, 22% of traffic would be offloaded.  The U.S. is well ahead of the global curve on this issue – by 2017, we project 66% of mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi.

Together, these two seemingly disconnected shifts in consumer behavior produce an interesting effect on mobile data growth rates. Globally, growth will be about 30% less than what we projected last year and about 25% less in North America. That’s the combined effect of consumers using fewer mobile-enabled laptops that generate 368X data relative to a basic cell phone, while increasingly taking advantage of Wi-Fi networks at home, in the office or on the go.  That’s an amazing shift in consumer behavior.

We learn something new with every new edition of the Global Mobile VNI, and this year, we learned how shifts in consumer behavior can have an impact on forecasted growth projections.  But the basic narrative, which the Global Mobile VNI has been telling us for these many years, remains unchanged.  Mobile data traffic keeps growing and growing and growing – and policymakers will have to take this into account as they consider ways to meet the ever-increasing demands on networks.