Video Quality Throttling on Mobile – Is It Really Just About the Data Plan Caps?

April 27, 2016 12:14 pm

Inna Zagrebelny, Marketing Manager, Giraffic


Other evidence suggests that it might also be about bandwidth congestion


When WSJ reported that for the past 5 years Netflix has been sending lower quality content to mobile users, it resulted in a huge public outrage. After all, AT&T and Verizon subscribers felt misled by the content provider who was actually pushing lower resolution video despite the purchased quality.

Sounds familiar right? Because it reminds T-Mobile’s bold move with BingeOn, limiting the video quality to 480p to its users, and not calling it “throttling” per-se, rather an optimization, under the same excuse of data caps. Called out by the EFF for throttling the internet speeds to 1.5Mbps for all HTML5 video streams (even for content sources that did not enroll the program), T-Mobile had no choice than to pointing out that the users can manually cancel the limitation, and the company’s intent was to provide “a feature that helps you stretch your data bucket by optimizing ALL of your video for your mobile devices.

But is it really about data caps? Or net neutrality?  There are two additional forces:

Over-the-Top (OTT) content providers aim to deliver a superior user experience, similar to what you’d expect from broadcast TV. Great content selection matters, but so does reputation. If Netflix starts pushing heavy content down the mobile networks, and the networks fail to deliver smooth playback, frustrated consumers will likely blame Netflix for the infamous spinning circle on their screen, and not their ISP. Perhaps Netflix just doesn’t have confidence in today’s congested networks. Thus, to gain more control and assure smoother viewing experiences, it delivers lower video qualities that will reduce the load on the networks.

Based on this logic, the quality must be limited, otherwise the mobile networks won’t be able to perform efficiently and will fail to deliver the expected user experience. ISPs can’t openly do this as they are bound by regulators and frequently find themselves under some kind net neutrality investigation- but Netflix can.

From the mobile network side, this is also one of the reasons that T-Mobile limits the quality by default for all video streams once you have BingeOn. Are there any additional reasons for the so called “data cap” excuse? Once the subscriber consumes their entire data allowance and gets hit with a fee, they’ll likely call customer service and will increase their plan, which means more revenue for the company.

However, there is catch to it- without expanding existing network infrastructure, the more data subscribers consume, the more loaded and jumpy the networks get. As a service provider, T-Mobile cares about its network stability and a massive networks upgrade, to put it simply, will cost them a lot.  

According to last Ericsson’s Mobility report, video accounts for almost half of the mobile data traffic, and is the key factor fueling the constant increase in data consumption. The data caps are calculated on a monthly basis, but do they consider the congestion issues during peak hours? In theory, consumers with unlimited data plans can stream 1080p or QHD to their phone- but what will happen if everyone has unlimited plans? The networks will collapse.

Limiting video resolution is a win-win for content providers and the ISPs. The content providers get to keep to their good reputation and the networks don’t have to invest heavily in infrastructure upgrades.

But consumers- are you really getting what you are paying for?