The Curious Case of Reddit's Bandwidth Hog
A few days ago I received some very interesting data: Reddit's Android app was consuming a crazy amount of cellular data each month.
In fact, according to this data, Reddit's app was consuming more cellular and WiFi data on a monthly basis than any other app in the US market -- including bandwidth-heavy video apps like YouTube, Netflix and Hulu.
After a bit of research and legwork, I think I figured out what is going on (spoilers: this is a story about a small but apparently very aggressive group of Reddit users). But stick with me here because the journey may be as interesting as the destination.
First, let me share the data I'm talking about:
|App Name||Incidence/Penetration Level||Cellular||WiFi|
|Reddit: The Official App||10.7%||2,797.5||13,262.7|
|Hulu: Stream TV, Movies & more||7.2%||2,054.2||2,531.3|
|Google Chrome: Fast & Secure||84.2%||746.4||1,674.5|
|Amazon Prime Video (amazon)||5.3%||416.2||1,022.0|
|Samsung Internet (sec)||23.6%||351.2||778.0|
These numbers come from Strategy Analytics' AppOptix service. Strategy Analytics is a research and consulting firm, and to help its customers better understand the mobile market, the firm created its AppOptix service to track the usage of data and apps among mobile users in the United States.
How? By installing tracking software on the Android phones of more than 1,700 U.S. consumers (with their permission). This software monitors all kinds of stuff, like what apps those users are accessing, how much time they're spending using those apps, and how much data each of those apps are consuming.
To be clear: This kind of monitoring service isn't new or unique. For example, companies like OpenSignal and Nielsen operate similar monitoring services. In fact, Tutula operates what I would consider the most transparent business model in this sector: If a mobile app developer agrees to install Tutula's code into their iOS or Android app, Tutula can then track what that user does on their phone. The company then sells that aggregated, anonymized data and shares 50% of the proceeds with that app developer. (It's also worth noting that, not surprisingly, this business model occasionally raises privacy concerns in reports among the wider mass media. It's also not as egregious, at least in my view, as wireless operators simply selling their subscribers' data wholesale.)
Anyway, back to the AppOptix data. The above information was gleaned from AppOptix's December results, and shows that roughly 10% of the 1,700 total people in the program that month have the Reddit Android app -- and that they're definitely using it. Specifically, those Reddit fans consume an average of almost 3 GB per month through that one app on cellular networks. That's higher than the 2 GB consumed by Hulu and the 1 GB consumed by YouTube. (Netflix is ranked number six, but that's not a huge surprise considering the company acknowledges that a majority of US viewers watch the service on their TVs, not on their phones.)
On WiFi, the figures for Reddit are pretty astounding: Users consumed a whopping 13 GB of data per month on WiFi networks, well beyond the 2.5 GB per month using Hulu. (That the WiFi numbers are higher than the cellular numbers also is not a surprise: Despite the popularity of unlimited cellular plans, most users automatically connect to WiFi in their homes and offices.)
Getting to the bottom of things
So, the obvious conclusion to draw from Strategy Analytics' AppOptix numbers is that Reddit has, seemingly overnight, become the number one enemy of wireless network engineers everywhere. Right?
There's some evidence for that conclusion. Reddit itself boasts that it's the fifth most popular destination on the internet in the United States, with an average of 330 million active users every month. Moreover, the site introduced its first mobile apps just three years ago, and the apps automatically display an endless scroll of the social website's viral pictures and videos.
This all seems to set the stage for a critical mass of Reddit users heading into 2019. And some additional data from AppOptix appears to bear out this theory:
|Year||Quarter||App Name||Incidence/Penetration Level||Cellular||WiFi|
|2018||Q1||Reddit: The Official App||7.39%||1,042.2||4,246.9|
|2018||Q2||Reddit: The Official App||8.13%||2,899.9||9,953.5|
|2018||Q3||Reddit: The Official App||8.65%||3,183.5||12,662.0|
|2018||Q4||Reddit: The Official App||10.90%||3,737.0||15,173.6|
This shows that the number of Reddit app users among AppOptix participants grew throughout 2018, alongside the amount of data they consume.
I'll admit, I was excited about these findings when I first got them. Indeed, I was getting ready to write a story about how Reddit is poised to bring cellular networks to their knees, just like an unnamed Android IM app did to T-Mobile's network in an incident disclosed by the operator in 2010.
But my editor, the affable Phil Harvey, wisely stepped in and asked me to do a little research before writing that.
So I started talking to people about Reddit. Turns out that some Reddit users aren't so happy with the situation: "Why reddit app sucks data so much, i browsed for few time and 1/2 gigabyte it's insane app is so Garbage after so many years," wrote one user on Reddit, echoing what appears to be a somewhat common complaint among users of Reddit's apps.
And some network-monitoring companies agreed that social media apps like Reddit certainly have the potential to create drags on wireless networks with finite resources.
"Cisco’s Mobile VNI forecast does suggest that streaming mobile video and social media are among the most popular and heavily used applications on mobile devices (and hence over mobile networks)," Cisco wrote in response to my questions. The company operates the widely cited VNI forecast, which recently predicted that video will make up 82 percent of all IP traffic in 2022. (Cisco is planning to release refreshed VNI numbers just ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show, scheduled to start at the end of February.)
"An application like Reddit, which combines live streaming content and social media interaction, certainly has the potential to generate mobile traffic spikes during live events that are viewed by large audiences (e.g., NFL, NBA, Soccer, et al.)," Cisco wrote.
Most of the other people I talked to about Reddit either offered a polite no comment or echoed what Cisco's engineers said. A friendly spokesperson for Reddit declined to comment on the AppOptix numbers directly.
But one major US mobile network operator -- one that asked to remain unnamed -- stepped up with some very interesting figures, ones that offer important context and perspective to the AppOptix findings. In terms of pure network traffic tonnage on this mobile operator's network, Reddit only accounted for 0.2% of the total. Netflix, on the other hand, accounted for 4.5%. And YouTube? Fully 31%. Those figures line up much closer to the generally accepted consensus of network traffic flows across cellular networks. After all, YouTube is free, last I checked.
So what's really going on here? Are the AppOptix numbers wrong? Not really, said Prabhat Agarwal, director of Strategy Analytics' AppOptix service. What's probably happening, he said, is that there are a few really, really big Reddit users among AppOptix's 1,700-person panel. Remember: Only 10% of AppOptix users even have the app, while almost 65% have YouTube. What that means, Agarwal explained, is that there is probably a small group of Reddit fans who are watching an absolute ton of videos on the site. Another possible factor could be mobile operators' work to scale down the quality of video streams from popular sites like YouTube in an effort to reduce the amount of data their networks have to transmit; those efforts may not apply to sites like Reddit.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that some Reddit app users are definitely fans of the site, its content and its apps. But, at least right now, there's not a lot of them out there in the wider world.
Getting to the point
So, now that you've reached the end of my Reddit journey, what conclusions should be drawn here at the destination? I think perhaps the most important takeaway from all this is that network traffic spikes can arise from all kinds of different and surprising places, like the nation's fifth most popular website or some unnamed Android IM app.
And that means that operators need to stay on their toes when it comes to traffic and network management -- which of course is not news to any wireless network engineer. For example, most of the nation's big wireless carriers have been discussing their efforts to improve their networks near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, in advance of the Super Bowl there, in order to handle the inevitable selfie bonanza among attendees.
However, that preparation can be contrasted against the reportedly dismal performance of the early warnings systems and cell networks in California during the recent Camp Fire in California.
Finally, all of this is particularly noteworthy as we enter the world of the internet of things and 5G. Wireless players have long discussed the opportunities around IoT, edge computing, low latency and autonomous vehicles. And some have argued that truly autonomous vehicles, those at Level 5, will only be able to work in situations where high-speed, low-latency wireless networks can provide the kind of instant traffic management services necessary across an entire freeway packed bumper-to-bumper with driverless cars racing along their daily commute.
The question, though, is what happens when everyone in those vehicles suddenly starts watching HD cat videos on Reddit. Or live reports from a new armed conflict. Or begin broadcasting humanity's first encounter with aliens (hey, it's possible). Will the network -- and the phones, tablets and cars attached to that network -- be able to handle that kind of spike?
Perhaps it's worth going back to 2010, when an unnamed Android IM app almost crashed T-Mobile's entire network in one city, to note that this happened at the dawn of 4G. That incident becomes much more illustrative now, here at the dawn of 5G, although the stakes are much higher.