True to its word, Netflix is today rolling out a new feature that lets subscribers control the quality of their streams and the amount of data they consume on their mobile plans.
Netflix first revealed plans for such a data-saving feature back in March, as the company published details of how it caps mobile streaming globally in order to save subscribers from their own foolish selves. The announcement was in relation to a brouhaha caused by T-Mobile chief John Legere, who claimed that his mobile network serves up better-quality Netflix streams than AT&T or Verizon. He was right, but it wasn’t that AT&T or Verizon throttle the Netflix streams, it’s that Netflix was trying to prevent users from spending a ton of cash streaming its videos on unfavorable mobile data plans.
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) March 17, 2016
From today, for Android and iOS users around the world, Netflix will be providing a little more granular control for managing streams. If you’re on an unlimited plan, you can chomp as much high-quality video as you like, while if you’re on a flimsy 1GB-a-month allowance, well, you’d best go on a data diet.
To set the cellular data usage, visit “App Settings” in the latest version of Netflix and hit “Cellular Data Usage.” The default setting equates to around 600kbps, which will let you stream roughly 3 hours of content for every gigabit of data. “Our testing found that, on cellular networks, this setting balances good video quality with lower data usage to help avoid exceeding data caps and incurring overage fees,” explained Eddy Wu, director of product innovation at Netflix, in a blog post.
But you can elect to switch the default mode off, and instead activate “low,” “medium,” “high,” and “unlimited.” It’s worth noting that the unlimited option could consume upwards of 1GB per 20 minutes of viewing.
With mobile phone screens getting bigger and countless cellular tablets on the market, the quality of a video stream has perhaps become more of an issue than it was in the past. But Netflix famously doesn’t serve up offline access, meaning if you’re not within earshot of a Wi-Fi connection, cellular is your only friend.
And this is why Netflix is rolling out this feature today: It will go some way toward appeasing those who wish to watch movies and TV shows on the move, but there will surely still be a demand for offline access. Last month, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings gave the first-ever hint that downloads could be an option in the future. He said:
We should keep an open mind on this, we’ve been so focused on click-and-watch, and the beauty and simplicity of streaming. But as we expand around the world, where we see an uneven set of networks, it’s something we should keep an open mind about.
Having previously stated in no uncertain terms that offline access would never happen, Netflix could do a U-turn in future — simply because Wi-Fi and cellular access aren’t as stable and ubiquitous in some countries as in others. Today’s rollout is further confirmation that Netflix is more than aware of the varying Internet conditions around the world, and acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all approach could hinder its global growth. “As we have launched Netflix around the world, we have seen big differences in how much people are streaming on smartphones and what kinds of mobile data plans they have,” said Wu.
As of today, these differences will be bridged — at least to some degree — with the rollout of these new controls. And if someone spends a small fortune streaming House of Cards over 3G, well, they’ll only have themselves to blame.