Last week, we talked about how true 4K is still slightly down the road, but we didn’t tackle one of the biggest roadblocks in 4K’s future: data caps.
That’s a problem, at least in the modern world of streaming services. According to a report by CNBC’s Christine Wang, as of May 2016, 50 percent of U.S. households subscribe to some sort of streaming service. That number is only going to grow as more people embrace the cable-cutting lifestyle, turning in the cable box and relying solely on the Internet as an entertainment outlet. This places a lot of people at the hands of their Internet-service provider.
Back in April, Comcast raised their data cap from 300 gigabytes to 1 terabyte under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after the federal agency expressed concerns over data-cap limits. Before that shift, some consumers were hitting their limits and paying fines, despite not consuming more or less entertainment. For a little perspective, it takes about three gigabytes to stream an hour of high-definition video. That’s about 40-50 movies in one month with a 300 gigabyte plan. An entire terabyte—that sounds like a lot of streaming.
Now, what does this have to do with 4K? Well, 4K video has four times the pixels of 1080p, so a movie in that resolution could be around 100 gigabytes in size. Suddenly, that terabyte sounds like too little. It also takes a fast Internet speed to smoothly stream video of that quality. Fifteen Mbps (megabits per second) is considered the minimum to smoothly stream 4K, but even Netflix, the most popular streaming service in the country, recommends people hit at least 25 Mbps. The U.S. average in December 2015 was 12.6 Mbps.
Alright, so there might not be enough data to stream or download a lot of 4K content, and the Internet might not even be fast enough for it. So I just won’t watch anything in 4K, right? After all, 1080p looks pretty damn good. That’s a fair argument, but we aren’t out of the woods yet with these data caps.
Video games are getting big. Titanfall 2 requires 45 gigabytes of HDD space for PC. This doesn’t include day-one patches or future DLC. Games could be crossing the 100 GB mark on memory. However, delta patches, where updates change parts of the game instead of adding to it, will keep total memory down. Compare that to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which launched almost five years ago, which required only six gigabytes of HDD.
This problem only gets exacerbated when people add to a household. I grew up in a family of six. Granted, by the time streaming services really kicked off, and the Internet took the brunt of the entertainment workload, most of my sisters had moved out, and I was by myself. But if we had that same situation now, there might have been dicey times toward the end the month where board games become a regular occurrence. Not that I’m complaining about family time; we could all use more of that.
The recent AT&T-Time Warner merger announcement could spell trouble for consumers, as well. Pending a Senate hearing, the new super company would control a large amount of bandwidth and content. There are fears from zero-rating programs, where AT&T-owned programs won’t count against data limits, to making non-AT&T content more expensive. That’s what the Senate hearing is for, of course. Failure to change and adhere to regulations will prevent the companies merging. That stopped Comcast from buying Time Warner in the past.
It’s a mess really. But as content gets bigger, we need Internet speeds and data caps to adjust accordingly while they also provide an open marketplace for companies to grow, compete and ideally prosper together. Or we’ll all just use Google Fiber someday and not worry about speed or limits.