Bandwidth Conclusions

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some updated discoveries regarding bandwidth usage when streaming content.  My totals are, unfortunately, not much higher than they were when I posted that update.  I say “unfortunately” because the recent flooding in Houston really disrupted things for a while.

In any event, what did I learn?  Well, first of all, one should never expect constant throughput at maximum speeds.  For example, my DSL connection is through AT&T, and it is the “Elite” level, which is touted as having speeds “up to 6.0 Mbps.”  “Up to” is key here, as I have never once achieved that speed when testing it through tools like speedtest.net.  Usually it’s in the mid-fours.  And often much slower than that. And latency in Houston is usually absolutely terrible.  (I suppose it’s fortuitous, then, that I’m not really into on-line gaming, preferring the solitary experience…)

Second, I think there’s a limit to the speed levels offered by ISPs, and what my computer can actually handle.  I have no slouchy desktop machine; it’s got an AMD triple-core processor (64-bit), 4 Gigs of RAM, and even half a Gig of dedicated video memory.  I mean, it’s not a Falcon Northwest Mach 5 or anything like that (I don’t know if it’ll run Crysis, but I’m thinking probably not at full resolution), but it also didn’t cost 2100 bucks, either.  Anyway, I monitored throughput while downloading some Linux distros, and I noticed that as the throughput went above 500 KBps, my machine got sluggish.  I’m not certain why this is, but there you go.  (Also, this forum thread explains the whole “I have 6 Mbps service, why do I only get 500KBps?” question.  Hint:  capitalization matters.)

Third, streaming movies via Netflix does indeed gobble up bandwidth.  A month ago, I asked the question “Is that right?  Really? You could blow through even your Comcast bandwidth in less than 20 hours?  That doesn’t seem right…”  The answer is: Yes.  Sort of.  Netflix movies that stream with pretty good video quality do eat up about 1.5 Gigs of bandwidth per hour.  But my math was off by a power of ten.  (20 x 1.5 = 30, not 300!)

So, there you go.  As ISPs implement bandwidth caps, stream judicisously!

Real-World Bandwidth Usage

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m looking at what sort of bandwidth is actually used when you take advantage of the many media offerings made available on the internet.  For a little over two weeks, I’ve been monitoring my usage, and I think most of the bandwidth caps that are being floated by various ISPs are ludicrously low.  This morning I hit roughly 30 gigs, which would extrapolate to about 60 gigs for a month.  I have done the following:

  • Watched The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, and The Office on Hulu.com;
  • Watched three movies and a bunch of television shows (probably six hour-long episodes) on Netflix;
  • Listened to music via Pandora;
  • Downloaded and seeded three Linux distros via Vuze;
  • Conducted legal research; and
  • General web-browsing.

Furthermore, for the  past few days, I haven’t streamed much content because I’ve been busier than normal, so my numbers may actually be a little low for what would be my typical usage.  In addition, these numbers don’t take into account the bandwidth used by other people in my household.

Which brings up an interesting question.  If the ISPs are going to impose caps on users, and charge them for overages (sorta like cell-phone plans), are they also going to make it easy to find out what your bandwidth usage is?  Can you log into your account and check your stats, or are you totally at their mercy as to the determinations of bandwidth?

Time Warner’s Bandwidth Caps

PC Magazine has a write-up about TWC’s proposed bandwidth caps, which I briefly mentioned here.

According to PC Mag, TWC will offer a super-rock-bottom class of services with 768kbps down/128kbps up.  This will cost you $14.99 a month, and you will have only 1GB of bandwidth each month, with overages costing you $2.00 per GB.  TWC claims that 30% of its customers use less than 1Gb/month, but I find that hard to believe.  I’m currently running an experiment on my own bandwidth usage, and over 72 hours, I’ve already used nearly 17 GB of bandwidth, just watching things on Hulu and Netflix, along with 3 Linux distros I downloaded via bittorrent.  (I’ll post more detailed results later.)  Of course, with only 768kps down, you won’t be doing a whole lot of media streaming, so maybe you won’t bust through that 1GB ceiling, but I think that’s a ludicrously low allowance.

Of course, TWC says “hey, if that’s not enough for you, let me introduce you to my friends, Roadrunner Lite, Basic, Standard, and Turbo, with exanded caps of 10, 20, 40, and 60 GB respectively!  And if that’s still not enough for you, I can get you a cap of 100Gb for just $75, and if that’s not enough, I can get you unlimited bandwidth for the low low price of just $150 a month!”

Wow. What. A. Deal.

In related news, a consumer advocacy group is asking Congress to investigate bandwidth caps, so sayeth Wired’s Epicenter blog.

Blockbuster Over?

So sayeth MSNBC.  Well, actually, so sayeth AP, so maybe I shouldn’t link this story… (more on that in my next post).  (Link.  Via Gizmodo, via via via…)

In any event, Blockbuster has apparently disclosed to the SEC that an auditor doesn’t see much future for the company.  Which is somewhat understandable.  Netflix was able to severely undercut Blockbuster pricing in exchange for not being able to spontaneously go get a movie.  Blockbuster’s shipped-DVD service never really caught on, even though they had a good idea with the whole get-it-delivered-return-it-at-the-store-get-a-new-DVD-immediately concept.

Now, a lot of people have already mentioned that Blockbuster going out of business would mean that the days of running out to get a movie may be over.  Countering that argument, though, are those that say “Go to Redbox” or use Netflix’s streaming ability.  And, who knows, maybe Hollywood video will expand to take Blockbuster’s place (yeah, right).

Redbox, though, isn’t a great option, in my opinion.  The few times I’ve tried to use it, there hasn’t been anything I’ve wanted to watch, or–more often–the movie I wanted to watch was already checked out.

Netflix’s streaming option is a questionable replacement, however.  I love the service, and I have made great use of it in the couple of months that I’ve had it.  But it has real limitations.  First, the selection is less than current.  If I had a sudden hankering for Cloverfield, I couldn’t watch it instantly.  Same goes for Kill Bill, Burn After Reading, Wanted, I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, Slumdog Millionaire, Hellboy II, Body of Lies, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, or The Midnight Meat Train. (I like the name of that last one…)  What I can watch are Discovery Channel shows (I’ve enjoyed catching up on Extreme Engineering and Myth Busters), some PBS offerings (I highly recommend In Search of Shakespeare), some BBC things (Little Britain is cringingly funny) and some movies (A Clockwork Orange, The Big Tease, Back to the Future, Bottle Rocket, Dr. Strangelove …)  Netflix claims 12,000 options for watching instantly, and that’s good.  And as I’ve said before, watching movies and television as a streaming service is where we’re heading.  There are serious obstacles to the streaming future, however.

First, getting a good stream on Netflix, or Hulu, is dependant on your internet connection.  You need pretty robust–and reliable–speeds to have a satisfactory experience, and I don’t know if I’m the only one having this problem, but my AT&T DSL service oscillates between 5 Mbps and .7Mbps daily.

Second, you need a lot of bandwidth to watch a lot of movies.  With ISPs beginning to rollout monthly bandwidth caps, this will limit your ability to stream content.  For example, AT&T is testing caps in a few markets (so sayeth Gizmodo), and the plan is for there to be tiers of service.  Anything over the cap will be $1 per Gigabyte.  The caps aren’t terrible, but they aren’t overly generous either, ranging from 20 to 150 Gigagbytes per month.  (Other companies do caps as well;  Comcast has a 250 Gigabyte cap, and Time Warner is rolling out a plan in Texas where the top tier of service ($55 a month) is a pathetic 40 Gigabytes per month.  Link: Ars Technica.)  What’s interesting to me about the caps is that I warrant that very few people even know what they use in terms of bandwidth.  Yes, there are tools you can install that will allow you to monitor your usage (and we’ll all probably need to do that) (NetMeter is one I saw mentioned on a forum somewhere; I don’t vouch for its accuracy or safety), but it’s also interesting to me that there seems to be no set answer as to how much bandwidth gets consumed.  Doing a Google search doesn’t help much, and it’s unclear whether a DVD movie, which is, conservatively, 3.5 GB in size is what Netflix is streaming to you.  Does that mean that you will eat up your Time Warner bandwidth just by watching 10 movies on Netflix, with no other browsing?

Or should you calculate your usage with this formula that I found:   4 Megabits per second * 60 secs/min * 60 min/hr = 14,400 Megabits per hour.  Further conversion is required as 1 Megabit  is about 128 kilobyte (Link:  Wikipedia).  14,400 * 128 = 1,843,200 kilobytes per hour.  Which is well about 1.5 Gigabytes per hour.  (Is that right?  Really? You could blow through even your Comcast bandwidth in less than 20 hours?  That doesn’t seem right…)

I guess the point is that its tough to say that people actually know what their bandwidth usage is, and that, just as we’re learning in other areas, bandwidth caps mean ceaseless consumption just won’t be possible in the future.