Comprehending mobile traffic measured in exabytes: what is an exabyte?

Between 2017 and 2018, global mobile data traffic increased 88% to 28 exabytes per month. But just what is an exabyte, and how can one grasp just how much 28 of them is? The prefix “exa” means 10^18, or one followed by 18 zeros. So, we know how many bytes is in an exabyte, but we are still left with comprehending how much that is.

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Today we release a new edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report—replete with its usual set of statistics, forecasts and articles on the mobile industry. The big news is that, along every dimension we measure, the implementation of the fifth generation of mobile networks (5G) is exceeding our expectations. In this industry that never stops developing, traffic continues to grow as consumers find new ways to interact, entertain and be entertained with their smart devices. Between 2017 and 2018, global mobile data traffic increased 88% to 28 exabytes per month. But just what is an exabyte, and how can one grasp just how much 28 of them is? The prefix "exa" means 10^18, or one followed by 18 zeros. So, we know how many bytes is in an exabyte, but we are still left with comprehending how much that is.

Whenever the subject of large numbers is raised, I think of the "chessboard legend". While the details of the legend vary with different names and places, the core of the story remains constant: there is a familiar chessboard with its sixty-four squares and a promise to pay a number of grains of rice or wheat determined by placing a single grain on the first square of the board and then doubling the amount for each successive square up to the sixty-fourth square. Intuitively, this doesn't sound like it could amount to very much, but the math tells a different tale. If we sum all of the grains, the amount would be 2^64 which is 18 446 744 073 709 600 000 and rounded down to 18 followed by 18 zeros. A quick trip to Wikipedia tells us that the 18 zeros is called either "quintillion" or merely "trillion" depending on whether you are using "short scale" or "long scale" numbering. Either way, you would have no business trying to fit that many grains on any normal-sized chessboard. 2^64 grains laid out in a layer of 4 grains per square centimeter would cover the earth two times over, including the oceans. If grain was considered wealth and power, then 2^64 grains should be seen as wealth and power beyond conception or even possibility.

Now if we shift our attention from the time and place these grain negotiations were played out back to today, we can see that wealth and power reside in information in the form of data. I no longer carry cash around in my wallet but use either chips embedded in plastic cards or my smartphone to shift money in the form of data from one account to another. I can do virtually all of my banking and even file my annual tax declaration using my smartphone. Nowadays the largest connected machine on earth is the internet, and the most common way of connecting to the internet is using a smartphone. Data storage and traffic is measured in bytes. According to statistics from the Ericsson Mobility Report, mobile data traffic has been growing worldwide at rates between 50-100% per year since the beginning of the smartphone era over ten years ago. And now we loop back to the chessboard legend. Looking at the Mobility Report published today, one can see that at some point early last year, monthly mobile data traffic in bytes surpassed the number of grains in the legend. The estimated monthly data traffic at the end of 2018 reached 28 exabytes which is equal to 28 followed by 18 zeros... but this is not the end. The growth continues, calling for some imaginary cosmic chessboard able to keep score of the ever-greater amounts of data being shifted around in the form of traffic. This data is neither beyond conception or possibility.

Unlike grains of rice or wheat, a byte is formed by a pattern of electrical charges and is therefore intangible. These bytes are not homogenous, but are combined in a fashion to represent things, from text to money, moving images, sensor data and all things imaginable. And sometimes it seems that our lives are changing at a rate reflecting the growth in data traffic as we interact less and less with tangible things and more with their data representations. If that sounds more than a bit abstract, we can look further into the Mobility Report to find out that over half all data sent over the world's mobile networks is some form of video, and that proportion is expected to grow to around three quarters within the next six years. In a real way, one will be able to "visualize" more and more of the data on the screens of our smart devices. This may seem frivolous, as the video is mainly entertainment. But that will change and evolve over the coming years as data, in the form of augmented reality, works its way into every industry and profession and transforms our lives yet again.


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