UK mobile data usage could grow seven-fold by 2021

The average UK mobile subscriber could consume as much as 18 GB of data per month in 2021, according to CCS Insight’s latest UK mobile operator forecast. With consumers’ appetite showing little sign of relenting, this would represent a massive seven-fold hike from today’s 2.5 GB average.

Such a leap would require network operators to make increasingly attractive offers to satisfy pent-up demand. This could include further moves into unlimited data, a path that only Three has dared venture down so far. Three customers are by far the most data-hungry in the UK, gobbling up around 7 GB of data per month, over three and half times as much as its competitors’ average.

Meanwhile supply-side advances in high-definition content, 360 degree video and virtual and augmented reality, alongside greater capabilities in smartphones such as gigabit LTE, all point toward strong growth.

One only has to take a look at Finland to see how data usage can soar – should operators encourage it. Here, operators offer unlimited data bundled according to different speed tiers. This has resulted in phenomenal usage; DNA customers for example consumed a massive 16.5 GB per month in Q3 2017.

Operators turn to zero-rated content

In the UK, efforts by network operators to offer zero-rated content could boost average consumption in 2018 by as much as 1GB per month, compared to this year. This has been a fashionable play of late, evidenced by offers from Three, Vodafone, EE and Virgin Mobile.

One of the most interesting concepts is Vodafone’s pending launch of a series of data passes, allowing unlimited access to specific genres of app, for a set monthly fee. The offer – which has already been introduced in a number of other European markets – aims to enable “worry-free” usage while driving incremental spend.

The other important driver of data growth is of course network enhancement. Improvements to LTE coverage and capacity are well underway, with EE claiming “real world” speeds of 428 Mbps in Cardiff earlier this year.

The move towards 5G

This represents an important step toward 5G, for which the first networks are expected in the UK in 2020. CCS Insight forecasts good uptake of 5G in the UK occurring from 2022, when total subscribers will hit 17 million. By end-2025, more than half of all mobile connections in the UK will be on a 5G network.

Yet eye-watering growth in mobile data consumption is far from guaranteed. CCS Insight recognises an alternative scenario in which operators limit demand, either through preference or necessity.

Uncertainty remains over the much-delayed auction of 4G and 5G spectrum, originally slated for early 2016. And while operators grapple to make “more-for-more” a reality, they could be tempted to use price to temper demand. In our alternative scenario, data usage could remain as low as just 6 GB per month.

The direction of travel in mobile data is unmistakeable; the only question is how fast it will move.

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