Video Killed the Cellular Plan

Written by: on June 9, 2016

The Ericsson Mobility Report revealed a huge uptick in the number of viewers consuming video on their mobile devices, especially teens. Between 2011 and 2015, teens increased the amount of video watched on their smartphones by 85 percent. Also, teens are increasingly consuming video while on the go. Usage of cellular data to stream video skyrocketed 127 percent in 15 months. It’s not just teens. Every age group has increased the amount of time they watch videos on smartphones and the amount of cellular data devoted to streaming content.

Video is a data hog. Watching a single 30-minute episode can consume over a gigabyte of data. This data cost will be exacerbated by the advent of 4k and 360 degree video in coming years. YouTube and Netflix already serve large amounts of 4k content.

Whether users should be saved from data abuse or delivered higher quality video matters because of the user’s bandwidth costs. Delivering the highest bitrates possible at all times creates the best viewing experience. It’s a question of quality vs quantity. By downgrading quality an app can deliver many more hours of video before the user is either charged overage fees or their carrier downgrades their entire mobile experience. Like BB-8 discovered, some carriers limit the rate data can pass through their servers after you surpass certain limits.

Netflix has taken a nuanced approach to help its consumers. They throttle users on the most egregious carriers who charge odious overage fees, while allowing unthrottled access to users on more lenient networks, which merely throttle users after surpassing data limits rather than imposing fees. However, don’t users who have lenient data carriers deserve some protection from data abuse? Once their carrier starts throttling, then their entire experience is downgraded.

Good user experience includes choices. An option to toggle their preferred quality should be included. Ideally, info on the estimated data usage for each quality setting would also be available. Better choices require better knowledge. In addition, good choices should be rewarded. If the user enables wi-fi, woo hoo! Fire the engines and let your video player rip to its fullest extent.

Video players can do more than reduce quality to improve the user experience of viewers on cellular networks. Ad quality should also be reduced. Users can be quite vocal when the video itself plays poorly but the ads perform admirably. If there’s an option to skip an ad after some time period, then don’t buffer the ad too far past that point because it’s likely wasted data.

Another option is to aggressively preload resources, like ads, captions, or scrubbing thumbnails, for non-cellular data users, but lazily load such resources when users are on cellular data, waiting until it’s actually necessary before loading. By aggressively preloading such resources, you can save valuable data for the end user if they wander out of the range of their router.

Complex solutions can be explored at all levels of the stack. Netflix has begun encoding videos per-title, which allows for differential bit rates based on the complexity of the content. An action film full of scenes involving fast movements, a broad spectrum of colors, and explosions requires a much higher bitrate to look good than videos centered on dialogue or animated videos with large rectangles of single colors. You can read more about this on the Netflix Tech Blog.

It might seem inconsequential to worry about data if you perceive mobile devices as limitless gateways to the web. However, many users struggle with strict data caps, especially in emerging markets where data is much more expensive and often barely affordable. The trends point towards users watching more and more content, even on cellular data. They could be shooting themselves in the foot using your video player as the bullet.

Mike Patterson

Mike Patterson

Mike is an Android Developer at POSSIBLE Mobile, a leading mobile development company. Mike specializes in video playback where refactoring is a way of life. Mike regularly attends Denver Droids to share his experiences and learn from other great minds.
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