The world's congested mobile airwaves are being divided in a lopsided manner, with 1 percent of consumers generating half of all traffic. The top 10 percent of users, meanwhile, are consuming 90 percent of wireless bandwidth.
Arieso, a company in Newbury, England, that advises mobile operators in Europe, the United States and Africa, documented the statistical gap when it tracked 1.1 million customers of a European mobile operator during a 24-hour period in November.
The gap between extreme users and the rest of the population is widening, according to Arieso. In 2009, the top 3 percent of heavy users generated 40 percent of network traffic. Now, Arieso said, these users pump out 70 percent of the traffic.
Michael Flanagan, the chief technology officer at Arieso, said the study did not produce a more precise profile of extreme users. But the group, he said, was probably diverse, with a mix of business users gaining access to the Internet over a 3G network while traveling, and individuals with generous or unlimited mobile data packages watching videos, the main cause of the excess traffic.
"Some people may draw the parallel to Occupy Wall Street, and I've already heard comments about 'Occupy the Downlink,' " Mr. Flanagan said. "But the situations are very different, and the mobile situation doesn't break down along socioeconomic lines."
The Arieso survey found that 64 percent of extreme users were using a laptop, a third were using a smartphone and 3 percent had an iPad.
The imbalance in mobile phone consumption is another example of a relatively small group of individuals dominating the consumption of a particular resource. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, consumes about 23 percent of the world's daily oil production, according to American government figures. Japan, Germany and Italy, whose populations together make up less than 4 percent of the world's total, accounted for 31 percent of global natural gas imports in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency.
Pal Zarandy, an analyst at Rewheel, a research firm in Helsinki, Finland, that advises operators on data packages and pricing strategies, said the disparity in bandwidth use was not surprising because most mobile phone users globally used a 2G telephone for calls and texts only.
Just 13.2 percent of the world's 6.1 billion cellphones are smartphones, according to Ericsson, the leading maker of mobile network equipment, but the rate exceeds 30 percent in larger markets like the United States, Germany and Britain.
The more powerful phones are rapidly replacing the simpler, less voracious devices in many countries, raising traffic levels and pressure on operators to keep pace. In countries like Sweden and Finland, smartphones now account for more than half of all mobile phones, Mr. Zarandy said. About 35 percent of Finns also use mobile laptop modems and dongles, or modems in a USB stick; one operator, Elisa, offers unlimited data plans for as little as 5 euros, or $6.40, a month.
As a result, Finns consume on average 1 gigabyte of wireless data a month over an operator's network, almost 10 times the European average. As more consumers buy smartphones, the level of mobile data consumption and congestion will rise in other countries.
"This of course is bad news for operators because it means that more traffic is coming and they need to invest to stay ahead of the curve," Mr. Zarandy said.
Mr. Flanagan at Arieso said one European operator, which he declined to identify, last year installed 250 miniature base stations, called microcells, to handle the traffic of extreme users. The operator, he said, did not wish to publicize the work because it did not want to draw attention to the strains that its network was experiencing.
Patrik Cerwall, the head of strategic marketing and intelligence at Ericsson, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, said most operators were beginning to look for ways to make their networks more efficient, whether by dumping data quickly into a fixed-line network, imposing volume limits on customers or installing miniature base stations at congestion points.
Ericsson expects the volume of global mobile data to rise tenfold from 2011 to 2016.
The rate is likely to accelerate as more consumers integrate the mobile Web into their daily lives. Last year, for example, 40 percent of smartphone owners in an Ericsson survey used their devices to gain access to mobile broadband connections even before getting out of bed.
The heaviest users of mobile data, according to Ericsson, watched videos 40 percent of the time, surfed the Web an additional 20 percent, and used up the rest of their online time in e-mails, social networking, file sharing and software downloads.
Advances in smartphones and applications technology are also driving up use.
Arieso researchers, in their latest survey, found that users of Apple's iPhone 4S downloaded 276 percent more data from an operator's network than did people with the Apple 3G, which has been on the market since June 2008.
Part of the reason for the increase in download volumes may be Apple's Siri voice feature on the iPhone 4S, Mr. Flanagan said. Siri allows consumers to dictate to the phone and enter more text and data into the network in an easier way. The growth of cloud computing-based applications like iTunes and other cloud services, which use the mobile network to connect consumers with remote computers, may also be a factor, he said.
In uploaded data volumes and the total number of calls to the network, two Google Android handsets made by HTC, the Taiwanese manufacturer, topped the list.
People using the HTC Desire S uploaded 323 percent more data than those with the iPhone 3G, and those with an HTC Google Nexus One phone made 221 percent more calls to the network. Calls to the network include the voice and data calls started by the user, as well as the automatic communication between the device and the network to update its applications or transmit its location.
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