The Throttling Participants
When you talk about video streaming, two letters come to mind: HD. I used to believe that everyone wanted HD video. As it turns out, this is actually not the case. Though viewers want to watch the highest resolution streams, many providers don’t want to have to deliver HD streams and publishers are caught in the middle.
The Delivery Problem
Whether it’s publishers like Netflix or ISPs like AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, many publishers and providers are degrading video quality intentionally, especially on mobile devices. So instead of delivering 1080p HD streams, many companies have decided to deliver 480p quality videos that don’t have nearly the resolution streamers are looking for.
Netflix has capped their bandwidth usage to 600 Kbps for numerous wireless networks. T-Mobile, with it’s unlimited streaming Binge-On platform, initially attracted a lot of attention, but the fine print shows that Binge-On only delivers relatively low quality 480p video streams. Of course, ISPs all claim that they’re trying to save users from excessive bandwidth usage, but don’t forget about the huge upside for the ISPs by operating under this strategy: they get to deliver less. The digital rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which seeks to promote digital freedom, certainly thinks that ISP claims are suspect in this regard.
Net neutrality is the ‘First Amendment issue of our time’ - says Senator Al Franken
Why No Bandwidth?
The problem is that demand for bandwidth is growing unbelievably quickly. Video, with its high bandwidth usage, is largely to blame for this issue. OTT and TV Everywhere have been game changers. Cell phones are gobbling up an amazing amount of data already, and this problem is only going to get worse. Over 2.5 million years of video will be watched annually on mobile devices by 2020. ISPs are already fully loaded and scaling their networks is an expensive proposition.
ISPs require a lot of hardware. Building out a bigger network to support all the necessary bandwidth requires significant financial and human investment. Either ISPs are going to have to spend a vast amount to add capacity to their systems, or someone else will.
If the ISP networks are going to pay for additional capacity, perhaps they’re hoping to delay that investment. 5G systems will likely become a requirement in the next few years. Since 5G will be much more efficient than 4G, it will be able to deliver much more data. Some estimates expect bandwidth capacity to increase by 1,000 times per unit area and delivery speeds to increase to up to 10 Gbps with 5G technology. Why add significant bandwidth now when they’ll be able to get so much more with 5G in the near future? But until then, streamers might just have to deal with significant ISP throttling.
Another option, that ISPs are supportive of, is for publishers to pay up. ISPs charge users for bandwidth (think your cell phone or home internet bill). ISPs would also like to charge publishers, who own the content, to deliver their data. This type of double dipping, where ISPs offer preferential treatment to the publishers that pay them the most, is currently illegal in America under Net Neutrality laws.
Regardless of anything else, bandwidth consumption is going to keep growing and ISPs will clearly need to continue investing in their networks. Hopefully, new technologies will allow them to build out stronger, more efficient networks that are capable of delivering more.
As the US government changes hands in 2017, I expect that Net Neutrality will be revisited again. If ISPs get their way, they’ll have much more money to invest in building their networks, but it could also signal the end of the open internet.
2017 might be the year that video breaks the internet forever.
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