Wi-Fi Bandwidth Hog Alert: Tablets Suck Up Five Times As Much Data As Smartphones, iPods

As more retail chains embrace publicly available Wi-Fi to help customers and their mobile devices stay connected while in-store, IT teams must project how much bandwidth those mobile devices are likely to grab. Such calculations may need to be dramatically super-sized if a report released Wednesday (June 22) is correct, in that tablet-carrying consumers suck up five times more data than those toting only smartphones and other mobile devices.

The report comes from cloud networking vendor Meraki, but its methodology seems legitimate enough. How surprising is this result? It's certainly expected that tablets would suck in more data; their larger screens make them ideal for full-length streaming video, which is certainly one of the most data-hogging applications. But a five-fold increase in bandwidth? Couple that with projected soaring sales of tablets—lead by the iPad—and those bandwidth projections are going to need serious work.

Today's Wi-Fi efforts—especially from some of the more technologically aggressive retailers, including Macy's, Sam's Club, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and the Krystal QSR chain—have run into a handful of security issues, particularly with restaurants. But bandwidth issues—aside from one congressional effort to force such retail Wi-Fi efforts to use HTTPS—have not been a major concern thus far. Consumers have been using these networks, but not to such a huge extent that the networks have been routinely crashing. If the Meraki numbers are accurate, though, that could change quite rapidly.

The report specifically found that five-fold increase when comparing iPad traffic with Android, iPod and iPhone traffic. One practical consideration that might lessen the pain is the relative newness of these devices. Historically, such new devices often have spikes in high-bandwidth activities in the beginning months, as consumers are excited to experiment with the more interesting of the new device's capabilities. As the newness of the device wears off, there might be a leveling off of full-length video streaming, especially in a retail environment.

After all, if consumers want to watch a full-length movie, aren't they more likely to watch it at home or maybe even while relaxing at a park instead of while shopping? That might suggest much of the iPad activity would be focused on short interactions—such as watching demos or accessing other information from the retailer's Wi-Fi network—and that would certainly lessen the bandwidth shock.

Also, the Meraki report didn't specifically examine retail usage, instead investigating data from more than 100,000 sites that were "a mix of general use, public and educational Wi-Fi networks across the U.S.," the report said.

Meraki said it tried to verify that it recognized the devices accurately: "The technology identifies each device’s operating system, make and model by analyzing network events and client information such as the NetBIOS name, MAC address and other information."

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