Industry studies predict that the demand for inflight broadband will increase more than six-fold in the next three years. That estimate might prove conservative based upon Qualcomm's research. In its July 2011 FCC filing, the company stated that by 2015 tablet computers alone will use as much mobile broadband as all devices around the world in 2010. Indeed, consumers bought close to 10 million tablet computers just in fourth quarter 2010; almost 45 million tablets were expected to sell in 2011 and 70 million more in 2012, according to Qualcomm's research. By 2015, more than 80 million such devices are expected to be in use.

And sales of smartphones far outpace those of tablet computers. In 2011, 95 million units were expected to be sold in the U.S. alone. Smartphone users exchanged 89% more data per month in 2011 than they did in 2010, according to Wall Street Journal research cited by Qualcomm. Cisco Systems believes that the volume of mobile data traffic will be 47 times greater in 2014 than it was in 2009, according to the FCC's National Broadband Plan.

“Consumers are embracing at unprecedented rates the remarkable capabilities of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other mobile broadband-enabled devices,” writes Dean Brenner, Qualcomm's Washington, D.C.-based vice president of government affairs, noting “travelers increasingly need full access [to] the same mobile broadband services and applications that they use on the ground.”

Brenner believes that Gogo's current 3-MHz bandwidth system will increasingly bog down because of the proliferation of mobile devices used by air travelers and that Qualcomm's greater data throughput capacity “will become essential for a majority of U.S. air travelers within the next several years.” And, he says, since broadband-enabled smartphones and tablets are becoming commonplace, “consumers more and more will want to access the same mobile services and applications on-board airplanes.”

Social networking, video downloads and cloud computing will be three prime drivers of demand for broadband in the future. Netflix, for instance, stands alone as the largest user of broadband in the U.S. and the average Netflix customer already consumes more than 1 Mb of data daily.

YouTube accounts for another huge chunk of Internet capacity with 3 billion video downloads per day. Just as impressively, YouTube received more than 48 hr. of video uploads every minute in 2011, twice the volume uploaded in 2010, according to another Wall Street Journal report cited by Qualcomm.

Cloud computing could account for substantially more broadband traffic growth than even videos. A Gartner Research study cited by Qualcomm states that only 3% of a group of 2,000 chief information officers said that most of their information technologies was supported by cloud computing at the start of 2011. But by 2015, CIOs expect that 43% of IT will be supported by the cloud. Consumer spending on cloud apps is forecast to more than triple from 2010 to 2015. Microsoft, for instance, intends to introduce a cloud-based version of its Office suite applications.

The public sector also is embracing cloud computing at local, state and federal levels. IT managers view cloud computing as a means of reducing software update and maintenance costs, thus it's likely that thousands of government workers will migrate from dedicated network servers to cloud apps for managing people, projects, programs and financial services.