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Ultra HD could push many above broadband bandwidth cap

UHD impact on monthly bandwidth consumption

Last year, I got a surprise when I received my broadband bill: I had nearly exceeded my 1 Terabyte (TB) cap. It turns out Ultra HD was a big reason why and controlling consumption is not easy to do.

1TB cap is not enough

Last year, the return of a traveling adult son had boosted the number of people under my roof to four. Each of us had at least two connected devices, all of which we used to pursue our video interests. A big boost in broadband usage was inevitable under these circumstances. However, it transpired that one person had been binge-watching Planet Earth on Netflix on the new Ultra HD television set.

And so it goes. What had once seemed an unthinkable amount of bandwidth (1TB) suddenly seems not enough.

Many now threatening to exceed broadband caps

3.5 million people quit pay TV in 2017. While they may have left the traditional pay TV world behind, they will not have abandoned their penchant for video. Many people will continue watching traditional television through virtual MVPDs, which increased subscribers to somewhere north of 8 million in 2017. According to Nielsen, the average adult in the U.S. was still watching 4 hours and 27 minutes a day of regular TV in Q2 2017. Add to that a consistent diet of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu content, and that broadband bandwidth can add up.

For example, someone transferring their regular television consumption from pay TV to a vMVPD like Sling TV would consume over 400 Gigabytes (GB) per month or 40% of a 1TB cap.[1] The average U.S. home has 2.5 people in it, and even accounting for some communal viewing, that home would be challenging its cap every month. The average home will consume 820GBs of broadband bandwidth if we are assuming 9 hours per day of total HD video streaming.

The impact of UHD

Ultra HD is liable to push many homes over their broadband caps. Let’s assume the average home watches one show per day in Ultra HD> It is very easy to do this, with many of the originals provided by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu delivered in UHD. Swapping just one show a day into UHD pushes bandwidth usage up 11%, to 910GB per month. Make it two shows a day, and a viewer hits that 1TB cap.

Binge watching a 13 episode show like Travellers on Netflix in UHD will cost 133% more bandwidth (65GB) than watching it in HD (28GB.)

Controlling usage is tough to do

Controlling bandwidth usage is very difficult to do with the top three SVOD services. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video provide no way to limit the usage. In other words, if a show is available in Ultra HD that is the quality, you will stream it in.

Netflix is a little better. A subscriber can select the best quality, for UHD and HD. The medium quality setting forces all video to SD quality, and there is setting below SD for maximum bandwidth savings. To watch Ultra HD content through Netflix requires a subscriber to upgrade to the $14 per month plan, which also increases the number of concurrent streams from 2 to 4. However, once on that plan there is no way to stop UHD consumption but retain HD quality.

The simplest way to control bandwidth use at the television is to use a Roku. Go to the Roku settings and set the video quality to either HD or below.

Why it matters

Many cord-cutting homes are likely consuming at least a half of their 1TB bandwidth cap with normal television usage.

The addition of a modest amount of Ultra HD streaming may push them over the cap limit.

The top three streaming services do not provide subscribers sufficient control to limit bandwidth consumption appropriately.


[1] Netflix says streaming one hour of HD content consumes up to 3GB per hour and one hour of UHD up to 7GB per hour.


(4) Comments

  1. The cable operators are not dumb. They knew the precise level at which to kick in data overage charges so that anyone who drops their pay-TV service and switches to viewing UHD OTT TV will suddenly see their broadband bill jump to a level that compensates the operator for the lost pay-TV profits. Their profit margins on broadband are much higher than for pay-TV, so the marginal broadband profits represented by overage charges can replace the lost pay-TV profits.

    The broadband caps and overage charges were instigated over the past few years as local municipalities that are charged with regulating cable operators simply allowed the operators to add these overage charges into the fine print of their contracts. Clearly, the local government franchising entities are not up to the task of regulating and granting monopoly franchises to interstate common carrier services.

    This is at the heart of the argument that gets lost in the debate over Title II regulation of cable operators by the FCC. It can be argued that cable TV is a local intra-state service because the signals are received locally by the cable operator and distributed locally. That has justified the historical regulation of cable operators by local government entities.

    However, their broadband services are clearly interstate, and by virtue of the fact that those services are delivered over cables operated under a monopoly franchise agreement with the local government entity, cable operators will once again be able to operate interstate common carrier services while enjoying monopoly franchises, without FCC regulation now they are freed from Title II.

    And this is what happens. The cable operators are given carte blanch by the local government regulators to exact fees in their unregulated interstate broadband services that are precisely calculated to protect their pay-TV profits that are threatened by the migration to OTT TV, where innovation enables the delivery of UHD, when their own cable systems cannot. So thanks to government regulators, who are supposed to protect consumers, those who want to switch to innovative OTT so they can receive UHD must still pay the cable operators their pay-TV profits. By the way, the cable operators are also scheming to recoup even more lost TV profits by charging streaming services to access the operators’ broadband customers with peering fees, port charges and caching charges.

  2. Got a ROKU 3 and am looking for the setting options you describe for limiting bandwidth. Not able to locate. Could be a bit more specific

    • On the Roku menu on the right of the display select settings. You should see an item labeled “screen type”. Select that. It will probably be set to auto. Change it to 1080p or 720p. When you go into Netflix now all the shows that were listed as 4K will be listed as HD.

  3. I dropped my 100Mb connection to a 30Mb. I like the extra speed, but what’s the point if I cannot use it? The second 5g is available without a cap I’m switching.

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