NBC has been heavily promoting the ability to stream “32 sports, 302 events, all live online” during the Olympics. If you have a wireless device, this might seem like a great opportunity for some Olympic-watching on the go. Unfortunately, your data cap will likely run out well before you get your fill of team handball.
Streaming quality varies, as does screen size, which can make actually figuring out how much data streaming video uses a real challenge (a problem with data caps more generally, but one best left for another post. Or a whitepaper). For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that you have a 4G wireless connection and a device with a nice screen. Since you are paying for a “super fast” connection and you have a device with a high resolution screen, you are going to want the highest quality video stream. That stream comes at about 5 Mbps.
One of the problems with data caps is that it is not obvious to most people how to convert a streaming media rate (expressed in Mbps) into the type of data that caps are measured in (GB). Luckily, with a little help from the internet, we figured out that 5Mbps will stream 2.3 GB in an hour – that’s one team handball game.
While 2.3 GB will get you a team handball game, it is also getting close to a month’s worth of data. In fact, if you are on Verizon’s $30/2 GB data plan (its most popular) you are already .3 GB over and owe Verizon an extra $10 (assuming you stop there and do not use any more data until next month – another hour of Olympics will cost you another $20). If you are on AT&T’s $30/3 GB data plan, you still have .7 GB to get through the rest of the month. Hope you don’t want to watch any more Olympics!
This might all come of a shock if you have been watching commercials for 4G service that tout the ability to stream video as one of its key selling points. While 4G networks certainly have the speed to stream all the video you would want, 4G service – at least as sold by our nation’s largest two wireless carriers – will often start punishing you pretty quickly for giving it a shot.
This tension is at the heart of 4G wireless service – fast networks and low caps work against themselves. Any use that will benefit from the faster speeds will also drive users towards their data caps faster. And until we all come to terms with that (or carriers at least explain where their data caps come from) every exciting new video streaming opportunity is going to cause some headaches.