By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The volume of data crossing U.S. mobile networks will grow almost eight-fold by 2018, and demand for Internet-connected devices will also skyrocket, according to a report released on Wednesday that poses questions about U.S. spectrum policy.
U.S. consumers will download and upload more data on their smartphones in 2018 than they did on their laptops in 2013, according to a forecast by Cisco Systems Inc. Americans will continue to lead the world as earlier and faster converts to new smart devices and networks, the Cisco report said.
"It's more people, more connections, faster speeds on the networks and then more rich content, which in this case is video, video, video," Robert Pepper, Cisco's vice president for global technology policy, told Reuters.
Cisco, one of the leading makers of networking equipment, studies the use and speed of devices, connections and data for an annual forecast of mobile data traffic trends.
U.S. wireless networks will continue to experience a steep increase in so-called machine-to-machine communications, as Americans seek the convenience of devices that talk to each other and the Internet, like remotely operated thermostats or smart anti-theft sensors, according to Cisco's forecast.
Internet-linked devices will keep spreading at a fast clip, with some 271 million connections between gadgets and the Internet forecast for 2018 - an eight-fold jump from 35 million in 2013 that is driven by the predicted boom in wearable devices like activity-tracking wristband Fitbit, Pepper said.
By 2018, Cisco predicts that U.S. mobile data traffic will reach 2.7 exabytes a month - equal to the amount of data stored on some 675 million DVDs. In 2013, less than half an exabyte of data crossed U.S. networks on average per month.
The findings contribute to the growing concerns in the telecommunications industry that demand for data will soon far exceed the networks' capacity, and connection speeds will slow.
Though some have argued that technological advancements may prevent the crisis, wireless companies say they need more airwaves to evade the spectrum crunch.
"If we don't add more spectrum in the long term, what it means for cellular networks is congestion, particularly in the peak hours and particularly in urban areas," said Mary Brown, Cisco's director of government affairs.
The Federal Communications Commission is stepping up its work to reshuffle ownership of airwaves, including efforts to clear large slices of frequencies controlled by government agencies for use by private companies and consumers.
Cisco also forecast that U.S. carriers will increasingly rely on WiFi connections to automatically divert data traffic, nearly two-thirds of it by 2018.
"Even as networks get more and more powerful, they're certainly continuing to add to the amount of traffic that's traveling over both cellular and WiFi networks," Brown said.
"We're going to need more than just technological improvements to satisfy those demand curves. We're going to need more spectrum."
(Editing by Jan Paschal)