The Future of Mobile Video Is… DVD Quality?

When you think of the future of video, what words come to mind? If you’re like most observers, you’re likely rattling around words like “4K” or “high dynamic range” or possibly “8K” and potentially “virtual reality.”

Unless you’re a mobile carrier, that is. In that case, the future of video conjures up the phrase….480p.

The last time anyone touted 480p as the future of video was likely at the birth of the DVD player. But in today’s world of binge watching and mobile one upmanship, 480p is back.

This year, both Sprint and T-Mobile unveiled unlimited data plans in an effort to peel more subscribers away from Verizon and AT&T. These plans made big headlines but it quickly became apparent that there are plenty of limitations lurking in the fine print of these unlimited plans. For Sprint and T-Mobile customers purchasing the entry-level unlimited data plan means losing HD video streaming. Instead, those customers are relegated to viewing at 480p. (If they can’t live without HD video, there are pricier unlimited upgrades that support it.)

AT&T, which offers one unlimited data plan for DirecTV subscribers, has also embraced 480p video for its subscriber base thanks to a new Stream Saver feature that reduces streaming video quality unless a user opts out. Verizon is the only one of the “big four” national carriers not to have formally committed to 480p video—at least, not yet.

Video has long been viewed as the mobile “network killer,” but the push for 480p video comes at a time when the nation’s leading mobile carriers have made fairly significant network improvements. All of the big four national carriers have turned on LTE Advanced network technology covering the vast majority of their service footprint. Phones that support LTE Advanced networks include all of the major flagships from Apple, Samsung and Google and, in many cases, comprise the majority of what’s on offer from the major carriers.

With the advent of LTE Advanced networks, mobile service providers have considerably more data speed than what’s required for even a 4K stream. As Sprint noted in its announcement of its LTE Plus network (Sprint-speak for LTE Advanced), peak data speeds on the network hit 100Mbps—considerably in excess of the 3-5Mbps needed for a Netflix HD session. T-Mobile has hit speeds of up to 400Mbps on certain devices.

Of course, greater speed doesn’t necessarily imply greater capacity, and while carriers continue to densify their networks with small cells and new towers, there is evidently still enough congestion to make throttling back video quality an attractive (and necessary) proposition. Mobile carriers are also laying the groundwork for more “Internet of Things” devices to connect to their networks, so LTE Advanced improvements that could benefit mobile phone users may not necessarily trickle down to them immediately.

Also, the carriers’ diminished enthusiasm for paying top dollar for more spectrums from the UHF TV band is an interesting juxtaposition to the public’s thirst for more and better video streaming. The carriers may have concluded that a combination of network improvements and consumers’ apparent satisfaction with “good enough” video quality on a small screen is a better strategy than spending tens of billions of dollars on the spectrum being auctioned by the U.S. FCC.

For now, it seems consumers aren’t paying close attention to their throttled mobile video experience. T-Mobile added over 800,000 post-paid subscribers in the quarter following their unlimited announcement. Sprint added 347,000 net subscribers, doubling the prior quarter’s total. Video may be a network killer, but it looks like unlimited 480p streaming could be a killer app.