In April 1973, Marty Cooper made a phone call that put him straight into the history books. As he strolled down Lexington Avenue, New York, the Motorola executive (CK) whipped out an enormous prototype handset that he had built and placed the first public, mobile phone call.
The brief chat – and the photograph that immortalised the moment – marks the start of the mobile phone era. But Cooper’s legacy extends far beyond just that first conversation.
Along with a host of inventions, the engineer also formulated – and lent his name to – a mathematical law that captures the inexorable progress of our communications. Cooper’s Law, as it is known, shows how our use of the ether has grown since Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted radio waves 2.4 kilometres across the streets of Bologna – eight decades ahead of Cooper’s own historic transmission.
It has been estimated that the technology available when Marconi made his first transatlantic transmission, radio techniques were able to support just 50 simultaneous conversations worldwide. Since then radio capacity has grown by a factor of a trillion – doubling every two-and-a-half years. That’s Cooper’s law.
As well as describing progress, the law also become the mobile industry’s ruthless master: providing an aggressive roadmap for the rise of mobile culture.
The industry met this challenge thanks to advances in technology.
But now the game has changed. Although few in the industry acknowledge it publically, Coopers Law, which has stood for more than a century, is broken. And it is all down to the phone in your pocket.
Bin there, sent that
To understand the scale of the problem, you only need to look at the numbers.
For example, the mobile giant Ericsson has been tracking the growth in mobile traffic for years. But 2009 was a landmark year, according to the firm’s Patrik Cerwall: “That year saw more data traffic than voice traffic over the mobile networks”. And the data traffic has been doubling every year since – far outracing Cooper’s law.
The big accelerator was the smartphone, which suddenly made the data-carrying capacity of 3G networks attractive. “People didn’t really understand the benefit of 3G until the app concept changed everything,” Cerwall elaborates.
Data-hungry video is also driving demand. Networking firm Cisco has just reported video downloads last year crossed the 50% threshold, accounting for half of all data transferred over the mobile networks.
At the moment, there are around 1.1 billion smart phones across the world; by 2018 (the horizon for the Ericsson forecasts) that will treble to 3.3 billion. If you think that in 2012, smartphones represented only 18% of total global handsets, but represented 92% of total global traffic, you begin to see the problem.
And the growth will continue relentlessly, according to the Cisco analysis. In 2012, for example, global mobile data traffic grew 70% from 2011, to 885 petabytes per month – that is 885 million gigabytes of data. And in the next five years, it is expected to increase 13-fold, eventually reaching 11.2 exabytes (11, 200 million gigabytes) per month by 2017, according to Cisco.
These dramatic hikes will in part be driven by more people switching to smartphones, particularly in emerging markets, as well as new features on phones and in apps.
The impact of simple changes in an app was dramatically demonstrated in November 2012 when Facebook released new version of its mobile app for Android and Apple phones. Prior to the release, according to networking firm Alactel, the social network already accounted for 10% of the signalling and 15% of the airtime load on 2G/3G networks, respectively. But, as users around the world updated and started to use this new version, the firm noticed a dramatic increase of almost 60% in the signalling load and 25% in the airtime consumed by new features in the app.