Streaming media: ever since YouTube became the world’s favorite source of cat videos, it’s been the wave of the future. This year’s CES proved no exception — between the idea of playing cloud-based console games on PlayStation Now and watching ultra-high-definition 4K TV on Netflix, streaming and cloud-based media are clearly still where all the tech companies want us to be.
The big bottleneck in 21st century entertainment, though, isn’t necessarily in Sony’s servers, Netflix’s library, or even your TV’s rendering ability. As with anything that requires moving massive amounts of data, the bottleneck may well be your broadband provider.
Twenty years ago, high-speed home Internet didn’t exist. Now, it’s the most heavily-used utility many of us have. In December, the FCC published a report (PDF) looking at the overall state of broadband connections in the US.
The report (which is actually an interesting read if you like lots of detailed charts and graphs) indicates that there are roughly 92.6 million “fixed broadband connections” in the country — that is, a wire coming into your home to deliver a signal, as opposed to mobile connections.
How many people do those fixed connections reach? There are roughly 67 connections per 100 residential households. Turned another way, that says about two-thirds of the country has broadband internet access at home.
Even with access, however, consumers can still run into two big stumbling blocks accessing media. The first has to do with how fast the data moves; the other, with how much of it there is in total.
Full Speed Ahead
Sony says that playing games on PlayStation Now will require a connection of at least 5 Mbps; Netflix has indicated that successfully streaming 4K video requires a connection of at least 15 Mbps.
Those numbers don’t sound terribly hard to achieve; broadband providers like Comcast and Time Warner offer plenty of basic packages at the “up to” 25 Mbps standard. But the “up to” can be a big catch — and such access is far from universally distributed.
The FCC report indicates that of the roughly 92.6 million total broadband connections in the country just under 63%, or about 58 million, meet the standard of having a consistent download speed of 6 Mbps or higher.
That math says that roughly 34.5 million customers who are considered broadband subscribers would have trouble using PlayStation Now and would not at all be able to access Netflix’s 4K video. And that, of course, only looks at folks who have access to broadband connections; internet service in rural areas, for example, can still be patchy at best.
A table in the FCC report breaking the data down by state shows that access to high-speed (at least 3 Mbps) internet varies widely. Certain states are very highly connected: Massachusetts has such access in 77% of its households and New Jersey is a close second with 76%. On the other hand, seven states — Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — have high speed broadband access in no more than 33% of homes.
In other words, consumers in highly competitive markets like large cities will be fine. Consumers in highly competitive markets like large cities often are. Problem is, millions of would-be PlayStation gamers and Netflix watchers don’t live in those highly connected cities, though. And even those who do have reliable high-speed access may still have trouble, due to bandwidth limits or throttling.
Please Sir, Can I Have Some More? (No.)
Moving data at sufficient speeds is only half the challenge, in a cloud-based world. The other issue at hand is: how much data are we actually talking about?
Some ISPs have monthly download limit caps, and how low or high they are can vary widely. The customer in a well-connected area with lots of options is likely to have a cap of 250 GB, 300 GB, or none at all; the customer in a rural area using satellite-based internet is more likely to have a cap around 20 GB.
How likely is an ISP subscriber to come near those numbers? The National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s own pro-cap lobbying website indicates that streaming 8 hours of HD video uses roughly 16 GB of bandwidth, and claims that a 250 GB cap can accommodate 70 hours of HD viewing and 40 hours of SD viewing in a month, along with standard web-surfing use.
Sony still hasn’t said how much bandwidth it expects PlayStation Now to use. If spending 150 hours playing Skyrim takes up about the same amount of bandwidth as watching 150 hours of SD television (about 3.5 seasons of your favorite sitcom from the 80s), many subscribers would still have a good amount of wiggle room.
At least, as long as those hours of gaming replace other activity. If your spouse or roommate is binge-watching Netflix in HD (or 4K) on one TV while you’re also compulsively streaming Skyrim to the other, well, bandwidth limits could sneak up on your household fairly quickly.
Of course, it’s not just streaming services straining residential bandwidth; PC gamers have for many years now been familiar with the shock of, “Did I really just download 45 GB of stuff on Steam?” Digital distribution is now spreading to consoles as well, with both the PS4 and Xbox One touting their online storefronts.
The difference between a massive one-time download and cloud-based access is that a consumer can plan for, understand, and allocate bandwidth to a large file as needed. If you know something is 20 GB, you can download 5 GB a day and pause the file in between, if you have to. It’s massively inconvenient, but plausible.
If nobody understands how much data goes back and forth during a streaming game, though, it’s hard to make plans for. ISPs may also decide they don’t like accommodating the extra traffic, and deliberately throttle streaming video and/or gaming services.
The streaming services we already have are incredibly popular. Netflix has over 31 million subscribers in the United States, and only keeps growing. Just as HD TV has supplanted SD, something–4K or another invention–will come along behind it, and consumers are going to want to watch it.
With tech companies doing everything they can to get us watching and playing more, faster, shinier stuff from the cloud with each passing year, ISPs have their work cut out for them bringing their systems up to the standard that 21st century entertainment demands.