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tangled lines

Carriers Are Choking Video Speeds, But We Don’t Even Use The Pipe We Pay For

Amid the wireless carriers’ multi-billion-dollar 5G bandwidth-building binge come studies suggesting that a) they’re routinely throttling video streaming services and b) we consumers aren’t even using all the capacity we’re already buying.

As we move into a new world of high-capacity, super-fast bandwidth, both mobile and fixed, we’ll do well to focus on whether we’re getting what we pay for, are using what we pay for, and have the related cutting-edge technologies like high-resolution screens to actually take advantage.

A huge global study run by five researchers from the University of Massachussetts Amherst and Northeastern University found that 30 of more than 2,700 carriers – including all the major U.S. services – were selectively slowing down major video services such as Amazon, YouTube and Netflix.

The study crowd-sourced more than 1 million measurements, in 183 countries and regions. Barely a year after the FCC killed Net Neutrality provisions, the U.S. carriers are picking and choosing which services they’re most likely to throttle.

“We found that most throttling targets video streaming, and that there are a wide range of throttling implementations detected in our dataset,” the researchers wrote.

Different carriers throttle different services in patterns that aren’t always obvious.

T-Mobile, for instance, practiced what the researchers called delayed throttling, initially allowing speeds up to 20 Megabits per second before choking video-download speeds back to 1.5 Mbps, an 85-percent drop. T-Mobile also was one of the most widespread in its targeting of services.

Netflix and YouTube were among the most-throttled services. Spotify, meanwhile, was hardly throttled at all, except by Sprint and its Boost Mobile unit, and in the United Arab Emirates, which apparently objects to its separate, unlicensed VPN service.

The result is poorer-quality, lower-resolution video than consumers might otherwise think they’re getting. The researchers noted, however, that sometimes the lower-resolution streams were built in by the video service providers themselves.

“In addition, we investigated the impact of throttling on video-streaming resolution, finding that while throttling does limit video resolution, it is also the case that default settings in video-streaming apps in some cases are the primary reason for low resolution,” the researchers wrote.

That finding coincides with a far smaller Wall Street Journal study, overseen by researchers from Princeton and the University of Chicago and using results from 53 of its far-flung correspondents, to see if they could max out current bandwidth usage under relatively normal demands. In a word, the Journal found, no.

“Our panelists used only a fraction of their available bandwidth to watch streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, even simultaneously.,” the Journal story said. “Quality didn’t improve much with higher speeds. Picture clarity was about the same. Videos didn’t launch quicker.”

Buying a pipe faster than 100 megabits per second for most people just isn’t worth the premium price that’s typically charged, the Journal study concluded.

All this comes as Internet providers busily push pricey packages of higher bandwidth to both small business and consumer customers, hoping to make up for some of the losses they’re seeing from cord-cutters fleeing traditional Pay-TV.

Already, both Comcast and Charter, the two largest cable-TV companies, have millions more Internet service customers than pay-TV subscribers.

The push to sell higher bandwidth packages will only accelerate over the next few years, as wireless companies look to make back some of the money they’re spending to build out their 5G mobile networks.

The cable companies also are investing heavily in so-called “10G,” their even faster fixed-line services that promise to deliver as much as 10 Gigabits per second of bandwidth. And with the turn away from traditional cable packages, selling high-speed data and other services will increasingly be the path to profitability for those big players.

All of that infrastructure will come at a hefty price, both for the providers’ and for those buying resulting services.

But if you’re a buyer, for the near term, it’s not clear that it will be worth the investment, even if you subscribe to not just Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, but all the new video services about to arrive on your digital “dial.”

Will we eventually find a way to use all that bandwidth? Oh yeah. AT&T spent $85 billion to buy Time Warner, to secure lots of exclusive content for its pipes. Verizon, meanwhile, is incubating numerous 5G-focused startups, like video-game cloud services and immersive experiences, at facilities from mid-town Manhattan to L.A.’s Playa Vista tech playground.

And of course, governments such as China, Korea and France are betting that whomever “wins” the race for 5G primacy will win the next generation of tech innovation. They point to technologies such as Uber and Lyft that were nearly unimaginable before 4G. Who knows what will come from the new possibilities unlocked by 5G (and, to a lesser extent, 10G)?

Who indeed? But for now, it’s clear bandwidth isn’t the biggest problem facing Hollywood and the video services.

Instead, it’s going to be figuring out how to get consumers’ more-than-adequate bandwidth and less-than-adequate bucks and attention focused on their respective, multiplying entertainment options. As more major services arrive over the next several months, that will be an increasingly prodigious, pricey and even Promethean task.

Turns out, even if you have the planet’s fattest, fastest pipe, you can still really only watch one show at a time. For all our cool new technology and intriguing video services, we still haven’t done anything to increase the bandwidth of our brains.