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22 August 2017

Verizon’s Unlimited throttling isn’t as bad as it sounds

Verizon’s decision to throttle virtually all video on its Unlimited mobile data plans is angering some, especially those who think it breaks some unwritten promise that Verizon would deliver the highest HD always to all unlimited customers because, well, “unlimited.”

It’s fair to equate “unlimited” plans with All You Can Eat restaurants, which offer an endless supply of food. But like those restaurants, there’s no guarantee of quality. You want filet minion? Then you should leave the all-you-can-eatery and head over to an exclusive restaurant for a single steak and a crumbly blue cheese salad.

Unlimited data plans, which have proliferated over the last 12 months, have offered varying degrees of the smorgasbord menu of mobile service. Most teased you with high-quality 1080p video but soon swapped that for 480p (after some data usage), DVD-quality video.

Now Verizon has followed suit with a more draconian, tiered Unlimited plan: Go Unlimited, Tiered Unlimited, Business Unlimited, and everyone is calling foul.

Verizon apparently anticipated the backlash and, even though they’re rolling out the new tiered system tomorrow (August 23), the company has yet to publicize the change or new offerings.

The most affordable plan, $40 a month for four lines, holds all smartphones to 480p streaming video (larger-screened tablets get 720p). If you want 720p on your phone, you’ll pay at least $50 a month for four lines. Verizon will also throttle Unlimited customer data on an as-needed basis, a switch from doing so only after the you had consumed 22GB of data.

It is confounding that Verizon — which only a few months ago started selling us the HDR-capable and 4K-supporting (though not 4K resolution) Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones — won’t be streaming anything near 4K video to millions of Unlimited customers. Plus, even though many of us are carrying 4G LTE phones capable of 12Mbps (or higher) downloads and uploads of up to 5Mbps, Verizon could throttle them down to 3G speeds (which are roughly 10 times slower).

Maybe we all should be angry. But putting the blame entirely on Verizon ignores some fundamental realities of science and infrastructure.

Let’s start with infrastructure.

The five-bar lie

Look at your smartphone right now and count the mobile connection bars. I’ll bet you have three or more. I often have five dots (formerly bars) on my iPhone 7 on the Verizon Network. Unfortunately, the number of connection bars isn’t a measure of speed; it’s the strength of connection between your phone and the nearest cell tower. A strong connection can lead to better downloads, but that’s not, at least in densely populated metropolitan areas, the typical experience. Usually, you’re sharing that tower with thousands of other smartphone users, all of you carving up what was once decent bandwidth into bite-sized pieces of crap.

The network becomes throttled because we, the community, are throttling it.

This is what I like to call community throttling. The more people that are on any given mobile network all streaming HD-quality content, the worse everyone’s experiences becomes. The network becomes throttled because we, the community, are throttling it.

I remember when Verizon first installed a mobile network inside the East River tunnels of the Long Island Railroad. They were only 2G, but it was glorious. And each time Verizon upgraded them and I was on the bleeding edge of mobile connectivity, first with 3G and, finally, 4G LTE, I enjoyed unfettered access to my email and websites.

Over the last five years or so, as virtually every consumer has upgraded to LTE and started playing multi-player games, sharing video on social networks, and streaming Netflix on their commutes home, my experience in the tunnel and the entire ride home has turned to garbage.

What’s worse is that Verizon and most other carriers are spending less time improving and building out their current LTE networks than they are preparing for the next wave: 5G.

5G supports the scale and speed (500 Mbps) of our modern connected culture, and it’s ready to handle 4K HD video streaming and far more smart devices than any network technology before it.

But it will take years for the tech to be fully realized and at least that long for a ubiquity of 5G-ready phones.

In the meantime, Verizon has no choice but to throttle our experience until the new network is ready. Otherwise they must limit the size of their network — meaning, turn away customers. Verizon is a business, not a data charity. It would rather have 10 million customers grumbling about 3G speeds and 480p video than possibly turn away another Unlimited customer.

In your eyes

3G speeds could be abysmal, but should we really be all that upset about 480p video on a 5.5-inch screen?

Seven years ago, Apple introduced its first “Retina” display, a 960 x 640 pixel, 326 pixel-per-inch (ppi) LCD on the iPhone 4. The company chose the Retina branding because, Apple claimed the pixels were so small that the human eye couldn’t perceive them at normal viewing distances. Since then, the company has introduced Retina HD for its “Plus” size phones, which raises the ppi to 401.

Our ability to perceive screen resolution is, according to DisplayMate Technologies President Raymond Soneira, who has written extensively about displays and tested virtually every mobile display on the market, a product of both the ppi and viewing distance. 

He provided me with this handy table of maximum viewing distances that 20/20 vision can resolve for a given ppi:

  • 267 ppi maximum distance is 12.9 inches

  • 326 ppi maximum distance is 10.5 inches

  • 401 ppi maximum distance is  8.6 inches

  • 500 ppi maximum distance is  6.9 inches

We can see higher than 326 ppi, but only if we have the screen unnaturally close to our face (try holding your smartphone screen 7 inches away from your eyes and reading a standard Web page and you’ll get the idea).

Soneira told me the typical viewing distance for smartphones is between 10 and 18 inches.  At roughly 13 inches, we’re only perceiving 267 ppi. 

I’ve watched streaming video, usually of Space X launches, on my iPhone 7 and on a iPhone 7 Plus on the train and it always looks good. Usually the video just says HD and doesn’t spell out the resolution. It could be 720p, but it could also be 480p and still be considered HD.

In a world of 4K TVs and handsets, 480p does sound like heresy, but keep in mind that we’re talking about tiny screens and moving images where the content is already blurred to a certain extent. It’s unlikely that most people could tell the difference between 1080p and 480p on a 4.7-inch screen.

On a 5.5-inch or larger screen, though, the difference between 720p and 480p might be more noticeable. Soneira explained that, on a 5.5-inch,16:9 aspect ratio screen, 480p video would have a resolution of about 853 x 480 or roughly 178 ppi. “For 178 ppi the maximum resolvable distance is 19.3 inches… so that is very noticeable at normal viewing distances,” he wrote in an email to me. 19.3 inches is about arms-length and, obviously, further away than you might normally hold your smartphone.

Nobody is wearing VR headsets on the train ride home or out in the park — at least not yet.

As for 4K, there are times when that resolution will make a difference, especially for Virtual Reality. In that situation, the smartphone is placed inside a special headset, the screen is split in two and magnified while you view it from an inch or so away. Remember, at under 7 inches distance, you can perceive at least 500 ppi. 

Nobody is wearing VR headsets on the train ride home or out in the park — at least not yet. VR happens at home, when the mobile device is connected to Wi-Fi and bandwidth concerns are not an issue.

It’s true, Verizon is hoping to make more money off those customers desperate for a 720p fix, but they might also be trying to discourage that usage level to protect the network. I promise you that if even a fraction of your fellow commuters starts streaming 1080p or even 720p video on the train, everyone will experience community throttling, and no one will be happy.

However, all bets are off if Verizon starts offering unlimited, all-HD access to Unlimited customers who consume Oath content. Oath is the name of the soon-to-be-combined AOL and Yahoo networks. They have tons of high-quality video content. Such a Zero-Rating plan for Oath content would be a huge Net Neutrality red flag. Let’s just hope Verizon doesn’t go there.

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