Instagram, Vine short videos causing explosion on wireless networks

'Younger users don't even think about the data they use'; and there's more trouble ahead as real-time wireless video chat emerges

More than five years ago, Cisco began warning wireless carriers and consumers about the coming barrage of video traffic over networks. Now that barrage is here and there's more to come.

When Facebook-owned Instagram added 15-second video snippets to its iOS and Android apps in late June, the company reported that 5 million videos were uploaded in the first 24 hours by many of its 130 million active users.

At one point, users were uploading 40 hours of video per minute, Instagram said.

Instagram, like Twitter's Vine application, is focused on allowing video sharing for the masses. Both models allow users to take video and then store and forward it. On the plus side, Instagram and Vine are not as burdensome on networks as video conferencing (sometimes called video chat), which is real-time and two-way.

Undoubtedly, more widespread videoconferencing over wireless networks is coming, but "two-way video, like in Star Trek which is real time, hasn't really taken off yet" noted Steve Shaw, director of product marketing for mobility at Juniper Networks, in a recent interview. "Almost all the video we're seeing now is store-and-forward."

Even so, 15 second video snippets like those sent over Instagram represent an evolution in communications that most consumers take for granted.

Meanwhile, network providers and their hardware and software suppliers, like Juniper and Cisco, are sweating bullets in the background as they upgrade networks to prepare for another coming surge in demand.

"In the old days, we had phones and used them for real-time two-way communications, but now we have SMS and Instagram," Shaw reflected. "The natural direction is to move to video, which is an exponential increase in data when you move from 160 characters in a text [including 140 for the actual text] to high resolution photos and now video. Clearly that has a tremendous impact on the mobile network."

"There's a new generation of users who have grown up in the smartphone world. They choose to use their phone for social networks first and phone calls last. That's a dramatic impact for network providers and communications in general," Shaw added.

The biggest implication so far is that average wireless subscribers really don't know how much data they use, Shaw said. That's true, even as the major smartphone makers and the largest carriers offer data usage meters that show which applications are draining the most data.

Carriers can send messages to let users know when a monthly data limit is reached, but most analysts agree that customers are most likely opt to pay for another month's data quota rather than stop until the end of the month. It's unclear whether data meters and usage notifications have done anything to limit data usage, except sporadically.

Sprint and T-Mobile both offer unlimited data plans, which could challenge the two largest carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, but preparing for the continuing video data onslaught will be expensive no matter how the data is divvied up. And the costs will be borne by users.

"Whether you have a data bucket each month or an unlimited data plan, once that data [need] is out there, it's difficult to rope that back in," Shaw said. "The social networking world is flipping the communications world around. Younger people are always online and don't even think about data" and the amount they use.

Juniper specializes in helping carriers move wireless data more efficiently to core wired networks for moving it further along the communications pathway. Juniper makes routers and supporting software toward that goal.

Juniper put together some numbers showing the crunch from video data compared to photos and smartphone texts. The numbers show dramatically how a 15-second video uses more than 16 times the megabytes used for a photo, while a 15-second video uses about 72,000 times as many megabytes of data as a single text.

Juniper said that an estimated 65 million Instagram users send out an average of 1.5 videos per month apiece (at 9.6 MB per video), which collectively totals 936 million MB a month.

By comparison, Instagram users share some 45 million photos per day, at about 600 KB per photo, for a collective total of 791 million MB a month, Juniper said.

"You can see that if people started sharing video as frequently as photos, the implications would be enormous," a Juniper spokesman said.

To put it another way, if 45 million Instagram videos were sent per day instead of that many photos, there would be 432 million MB of video data traffic per day, nearly half of the 936 million MB estimated by Juniper for an entire month currently.

In another comparison, 181 million U.S. smartphone users send an average of 600 texts a month, at 0.000133514 MB per text, which overall represents 14.5 million MB a month, or about 2% of the nearly 800 million MB a month used for Instagram photos, Juniper said.

Given the enormous impact Instagram and other video social networking apps are having on networks, perhaps it's a good thing that video chat isn't already more popular.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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