Tablet ownership in the UK has jumped from 2% to 11% in 12 months, while every two in five adults now owns a smartphone, putting massive pressure on mobile networks.

According to Ofcom's latest annual Communications Market Report, almost half (42%) of users claim their smartphone is the most important device for accessing the internet, with 42% of these regularly using social networking sites and 51% using email.

Meanwhile, the overall volume of mobile data consumed has doubled in the 18 months to January 2012. Ofcom estimates that the average UK consumer now spends ninety minutes per week using a mobile to access the internet, largely replacing their use of PCs and laptops for watching video clips and sending messages.

“Our research reveals that in just a few short years, new technology has fundamentally changed the way that we communicate,” said James Thickett, Ofcom’s Director of Research. “Talking face to face or on the phone are no longer the most common ways for us to interact with each other.”

This massive growth in mobile data usage is creating a huge challenge for mobile network operators, and in many cases the network is struggling to keep up with high demands. This is largely due to the delayed arrival of 4G services in the UK.

“Simply put, mobile data usage is like a bottomless pit, it’s expanding all the time,” said George Wareing, head of mobile and broadcast, Virgin Media Business. “We’re all looking forward to the benefits of 4G, but it raises some tough questions for operators.”

Wareing said there is a delicate balance between customer demand, customer experience and costs. To avoid penalising people for watching their favourite shows or music videos on the move, operators are looking at fibre-based backhaul for cell sites.

“People aren’t going to give up this trend for streaming content and all the indications are it’s going to increase. Operators need to think about the long-term impact and put in place a strategy that’ll make sure customers aren’t affected by a potential bottlenecking of services,” he said.

Meanwhile, networking company Brocade predicts that the boom in revenue from internet-connected devices will generate £2.9 trillion a year by 2020. As well as the proliferation of mobile devices, this will also be driven by the arrival of the Internet of Things.

To enable this revolution, however, significant investment is needed to upgrade data centre infrastructure, according to Brocade’s UK country manager Marcus Jewell

“Server virtualisation may be gaining pace and revolutionising the proportion of server utilisation within data centres, but it will have to become practically ubiquitous in order to support the billions of extra devices expected to come online in the next few years. And this brings with it its own set of problems,” said Jewell.

“Traditional networking infrastructure will need to be replaced with new technologies, such as Ethernet Fabric, to ensure that virtualised environments can cope with the extra stress.”

Ofcom's research also found that text-based communications are surpassing traditional phone calls or meeting face-to-face as the most frequent ways of keeping in touch for UK adults. The full report can be found here.