5G networks should have enough bandwidth and capacity to compensate for increasing video consumption that's bogging down 4G networks. But what to do in the meantime?
Whether ‘tis nobler to stream video, or to download it? Aye, there’s the rub. There are pros and cons to both, but with 5G networks right around the corner, choosing streaming will be a no-brainer now and into the future, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Certainly not in the short run, according to the executives at Penthera, a company that specializes in systems that support video downloading.
In recent years, streaming on 4G networks has been the default for mobile phone users. Unlimited data plans made it cheap to stream, compression technology kept bandwidth requirements for a stream relatively low, and – unlike downloading – streaming can’t exhaust the limited memory of end devices.
Streaming is convenient, but it has never been a consistently top-quality experience. Streaming services do a fair job of minimizing buffering, but buffering delays still happen. The alternative to buffering is to temporarily diminish resolution, and that is now occurring with greater frequency.
4G networks are overburdened now, and traffic demands continue to grow at eye-popping rates. Cisco with its Visual Networking Index has taught us the word "zettabyte" in relation to the amount of data being consumed on the Internet, and in its most recent VNI report (in late 2017), it estimated that 82 percent of all traffic on the net in 2021 will be video.
Wireless carriers have been shunting as much video streaming as they can through public and private Wi-Fi networks. That has certainly mitigated the problem on wireless infrastructure, but public Wi-Fi networks, especially, have their own performance shortcomings when it comes to traffic congestion.
At least partially in response, streaming services are offering the ability to download content. Amazon Prime began giving subscribers the option to download content in 2015. Netflix originally dismissed the move, but then began to enable downloading late in 2016.
When people download, network quality and capacity cease to be issues (as long as they’re doing it well in advance of consuming the video, of course). Downloading video unquestionably delivers a more consistent viewing experience. But the option appears to be infrequently used, and when it is, it’s rarely to achieve a better viewing experience. All estimates of the percentage of downloading activity versus streaming is in the single digits. And when people download, the prevalent reason is to prepare for the anticipated lack of access to a streaming source. People tend to download when they expect to view the content on an airplane or during car rides, for example.
Still, video consumption is growing rapidly, and something has to give. One of those things is 4G networks themselves. Most of the largest wireless operators have already embarked on the massive and costly endeavor of upgrading to 5G wireless technology to complement existing 3G and 4G networks. 5G will vastly improve network bandwidth, capacity, and reliability, which should go a long way in addressing the problems associated with video streaming.
As a practical matter, wireless companies won’t begin offering mobile 5G services until the end of this year or the first half of next. Furthermore, there is going to be a dearth of 5G-enabled mobile devices through 2019. The first 5G-enabled devices are going to be laptops and tablets, with smartphones following later. Even the largest wireless companies will be rolling out services gradually, city by city, market by market.
Penthera chief operating officer Daniel Taitz observed that millions and millions of wireless subscribers are going to continue streaming video on 4G networks for at least a couple of years, and the problems they’re experiencing with streaming today are only going to get worse. The company believes the solution for service providers is to encourage viewers to download more often. The company has developed a consumer app for downloading and other products to support the process.
“Look, I don’t have a crystal ball. Certainly, some people have the view that this world of ubiquitous and free or inexpensive connectivity is around the corner,” Taitz told EDN. “I don’t see how that’s likely with the growth in volume of video demand and with how bandwidth-intensive video is. And it’s getting more, not less, with 4K video, 8K video, forms of virtual reality, that are going to take up more and more bandwidth."
“No question Wi-Fi is getting better, and 5G has the promise to be better. But I have doubts that we’re anywhere near the point that we’ll be able to reliably stream video whenever or wherever without interruptions. If that happens in 1 or 2 years, okay, but we ask customers: do you want to wait 1 or 2 years to offer a better experience to your customers, or do you want to give that to them now?” Taitz continued. “Maybe one day our technology will become obsolete because streaming works perfectly with 5G. But in the meantime, we offer a great solution, even if it’s a temporary solution. And I don’t know if ‘temporary’ means 2 years, 5 years, or 50 years. I don’t see the problem going away any time soon.”
Penthera chief technology officer Joshua Pressnell agreed that with consumption going up, the problem of delivering quality streaming will remain, even with 5G, which he likewise doesn’t expect to see available on a widespread basis in the next couple of years.
A snapshot of growth rates of mobile Internet traffic from 2016. Cisco and other companies do not expect growth rates to diminish much any time soon.
Encouraging downloading will remain useful as a network management technique. “With downloading, you’re time-shifting your network capacity. If I can download something overnight, and have it ready for when I want to watch it, I don’t have to worry about 3,000 other people trying to watch something instantaneously,” Pressnell said.
While it is a network management issue, service providers have to be careful about the intersection of implementation and marketing. Customers need to initiate the process – downloading has to be pull, not push. Some customers will interpret downloading content to their devices in anticipation of what they might want as an intrusion. Consuming constrained memory resources on their devices will add to the aggravation.
But might 5G be only a temporary solution? There’s that zettabyte thing to consider.
Brian Santo has been writing about science and technology for over 30 years, covering cable networks, broadband, wireless, the Internet of things, T&M, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and more.