Welcome to the Zettabyte Era

A zettabyte is described as “a unit of information equal to one sextillion (1021) bytes,” an astronomical number that is becoming increasingly used in illustrating the rapidly growing rate of data traffic over worldwide IP networks. We’re not there yet but according to Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index, we soon will be. The company recently released its report “The Zettabyte Era-Trends and Analysis,” and its observations on the role that video will play in the future of IP technology are revealing.

Currently we live in a world of “exabytes” or one billion gigabytes; global IP traffic is expected to reach 194.4 exabytes per month by 2020, up from 72.5 exabytes per month in 2015. The global annual rate will reach 2.3 zettabytes by 2020—up from 870 exabytes in 2015. Cisco bases its estimates on the rate of new users joining the global internet community, growing from three billion in 2015 to 4.1 billion by 2020. Along with that, it also predicts that 10 billion new devices and connections will be added between now and 2020.

Fortunately Cisco, which is in the business of handling IP traffic, believes that the networks carrying all this data will improve over the next four years, with global broadband speeds nearly doubling from 24.7 Mbps to 47.7 Mbps by 2020 and nearly 50 percent of all fixed and mobile networked devices and connections will be IPv6-capable, more than double the percentage right now. IPv6, the next generation IP standard will allow networks to grow more incrementally and more efficiently route data.

What will all those new devices be used for? Not surprisingly the vast majority will be used for consuming video. The VNI estimates that IP video will increase four-fold between 2015 and 2020, accounting for 79 percent of global internet traffic by 2020, up from 63 percent in 2015. The world will reach three trillion Internet video minutes per month by 2020, which represents five million years of video per month or about one million video minutes every second. And the vast majority of that video will be hi-res: HD and UHD video, according to the VNI, will make up 82 percent of Internet video traffic by 2020, up from 53 percent in 2015. The predicted rate of 2.3 zettabytes by 2020 represents 33 hours of UHD video streaming for each person on earth.

But it’s not just consumer video that will have a large effect. Cisco also predicts that business internet video traffic will be 66 percent of business internet traffic by 2020, up from 44 percent in 2015. Video surveillance traffic nearly doubled in the past year and will grow 10-fold by 2020. And not to be left out, the burgeoning virtual reality market is expected to explode: VR traffic quadrupled in the past year and will increase 62-fold by 2020.

Not surprisingly, on-demand/OTT TV is having a big impact on Cisco’s video estimations. Cisco says that by 2020, “digital TV” and social networking will be the two residential services with the highest penetration rates, with 87 percent and 76 percent respectively. “The fastest growth will come from delayed TV services such as the personal video recorder (PVR) and digital video recorder (DVR) services at 7 percent CAGR,” Cisco said.

One interesting fact illustrates the reason why services like Youtube are adopting a Hulu or Netflix-based approach with professional original content. Cisco says that most forms of internet video are “asymmetrical” and that most video is downloaded/streamed rather than uploaded, despite the recent emergence of social media networks offering live streaming. “The emergence of subscribers as content producers is an extremely important social, economic and cultural phenomenon, but subscribers still consume far more video than they produce,” Cisco said. “Upstream traffic has been slightly declining as a percentage for several years.”

What does all of this mean for us? As broadcasters, we already know the advantages of transmitting video on a one-to-many basis (broadcast) when compared to one-to-one (IP); we’ve made that case many times in these pages. Although ATSC 3.0 integrates many of the advantages of IP video with broadcast, it’s doubtful that the standard will have enough of an impact to be mentioned in a future CISCO VNI report. Nevertheless, these numbers emphasize the impact that video has on IP traffic, and that the best approach to deal with the issue is a robust mix of viewing options.

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.