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Josh Miller, who works on Facebook’s product team, thinks red-hot mobile live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat are “cool art projects,” but that we’re a couple years too early for the technology.
And why? For one thing, Miller told VentureBeat on Twitter recently, connection speeds aren’t good enough. And that’s to say nothing of the impact of such apps on “phone and data plan costs.”
Sure enough, you’re already starting to see people report that thanks to using these apps — which allow anyone to easily broadcast live streaming video to the world from their iPhone or Android phone with just a few taps — they’ve gone over their monthly mobile data limits.
Those limits vary from carrier to carrier and plan to plan, not to mention country to country, but the dynamic is very real: It’s so easy to just pull your phone out of your pocket and start shooting live video of anything, from building fires in New York City to conference sessions at South by Southwest to Game of Thrones red carpet premieres, that people may not be aware of how much data they’re using. Or, they may not even care. As The Next Web reporter Owen Williams tweeted Saturday, “Periscope made me blow my [New Zealand] data cap in two days.”
40 percent of Meerkat streams are on carrier networks
The amount of data a stream uses varies from service to service, and of course, if you’re Meerkating or streaming from Periscope on a Wi-Fi network, then it’s probably not an issue. But Ryan Cooley, the cofounder of Meerkat, told VentureBeat that 40 percent of all the streams on the service are broadcast over carrier networks.
Twitter, which owns Periscope and launched it last week, would not say what the corresponding figure is for that service. But a source with knowledge of the technology told VentureBeat that Periscope’s data demand is roughly equivalent to that of Apple’s FaceTime service.
Again, every live-streaming app uses different technology. But one would have to assume there are some general similarities in how they work and the amount of data they consume.
Of course, as Jeremy Martin, the CTO of Stre.am (yet another mobile live-streaming app that launched recently), put it in an email to VentureBeat, there are “quite a few factors that have a direct impact on how much data is consumed while broadcasting or watching.”
Among them? Users’ current network strength. “If we detect that you’re having trouble pushing video over the wire fast enough,” Martin said, “we actually begin to dynamically drop frames to try and keep up. Even over faster networks, the throughput is impacted by the codecs and quality levels that your device is capable of handling, which isn’t consistent either.”
But in the end, Martin said, a rule of thumb is that a livestream broadcast over Stre.am sucks up about 3.3 megabytes per minute of live video.
That means, on a plan allowing up to 2 gigabytes of data usage per month with no overage fees, you’d be able to shoot about 10.1 hours of video a month on Stre.am — if you didn’t use any other data at all. Neither Meerkat nor Twitter would say what the corresponding figures were for their services. However, David Gibbons, the vice president of marketing at Ustream, long a leading provider of live-streaming technology, said users of that service could typically expect to safely stream about seven or eight hours of video without going over their caps.
Still, while most people may not ever approach that level of broadcasting, some are clearly starting to think that if live-streaming is here to stay, and not a fad, there’s going to be a bottom line cost. “For sure people are concerned about the cost to your data,” Gibbons said, which you’re “going to consume relatively quickly.”
As TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine pondered on Twitter, “I wonder if we’ll see whiplash reactions to people’s data bills after a month of intense Meerkating/Periscoping. Livestreaming ain’t cheap.”
Although some carriers, like T-Mobile, offer pricey unlimited data plans, most users have limits. It might be 2 gigabytes of data, or it might be more. Typically, if you go over your limit — and you’ll likely get multiple warnings from your carrier before you do — you pay a per-gigabyte fee that can be in the $15 range. But those in the business are hoping that the dynamics surrounding mobile data plans may soon change.
“Mobile bandwidth is becoming more plentiful and accessible, as local network infrastructure improves, and telco models begin to shift to accommodate this,” said Meerkat’s Cooley, pointing to T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan offering. “Things are moving forward in terms of mobile data access, not backward.”
To Gibbons, it’s all about market pressures. The more people see the need for services like live-streaming apps, the more “people are going to want free access to data everywhere.”
And while we might think that carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and others are out to squeeze us for every dime, there’s also the reality that they will figure out ways to profit even if they play along. “Carriers are going to go along with it,” Gibbons said. “They will formulate plans that will (allow unlimited data usage) at prices that work for them. … I think the mobile carriers will like it, because they’ll be able to get more revenue from consumers.”
At the same time, Gibbons added, as people use more and more video, there will be increasing pressure on the developers of services like Meerkat, Periscope, Ustream, and Stre.am to come up with more efficient video compression technology. There’s a reason, after all, that the fictional company Pied Piper won TechCrunch Disrupt on the HBO series Silicon Valley for its groundbreaking compression algorithm.
When digital cameras became a commodity device, and even more, when most people began to have smartphones, we saw that taking photographs was cheap. We took way more than we could ever process. Although we all love our cats and kids and food, if we’re honest, we know that the vast majority of the pictures we take are poor. Yet the cost is low. Already, we’re seeing that most of the live-streaming that’s going on is hardly going to win a Peabody award.
But Cooley thinks there’s larger social issues at work. “Introducing Meerkat [was] the beginning of a long play to usher in live video as a social medium,” he said. “There will be adoption pains, but we believe the culture is ripe to embrace this participation-based video medium.”
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