SCIENCE AND TECH
Videos Are Eating Your Cellular Data
People tell you to worry about a lot of things using up your data plan. It's videos that are doing it.
We are data pigs, most of us. Telecommunications carriers keep pouring more mobile data into our troughs, and we keep gobbling it all up.
The average mobile user churns through about 1.4 gigabytes of data per month. That’s worldwide. In North America, it’s more like 4 gigabytes. This is up from a U.S. figure of just 827 megabytes in 2013. Meanwhile, our hunger for mobile data keeps growing: Ericsson projects a climb to around 9 gigs monthly by 2021 – and that projection balloons to the 20-to-25-gigabyte range when you look at North America.
What’s fuelling our insatiable appetite for bytes? If you search, you’ll find plentyoflisticles that name and blame a host of factors. Our smartphones send and receive data over mobile networks for everything from location tracking to refreshing our apps to uploading photos to the cloud.
Yes, yes. Those things all eat up data. But if you want to trim back on the gigabytes you burn over your mobile network, you have to stop watching videos when you’re not on WiFi. The data-sucking, addictive nature of the moving image is killing our data plans – videos ranging from quickies on Facebook that play automatically, up to full-length films that we watch via the Netflix app. (In a waiting lounge, perhaps. Unwisely.)
We watch a mind-blowing amount of video on our mobile devices. Reporting on a 2015 earnings call, Wired quoted Google’s former chief business officer Omid Kordestani (who is now at Twitter): “On mobile, the average [YouTube] session is now over 40 minutes.”
We’re still watching most of that video over WiFi, which is good. But we’re doing at least some of our viewing while draining our mobile data – which is bad. According to research released last year by Ericsson (PDF), video is already eating 41% of our mobile data plans.
And while those data plans keep getting bigger – five gigabytes is no longer unusual, et cetera – they’re not growing fast enough to keep up with our evolving online habits. By 2021, video will account for 70% of our data usage, at least according to Ericsson.
Incidentally, if this addiction to mobile video sounds alien, you’re probably sort of old: It’s the 20-to-35-year-old age groups who are the most enthusiastic users of video on mobile data – which you can see on page 25 of the aforementioned report. Or you can see it just by boarding a crowded streetcar in Toronto and looking around.
Long story short, we’re either going to have to find and purchase much larger plans, or we’re going to have to stop getting hooked on amazing, transfixing videos when we’re not on WiFi.
Too much data usage is especially likely to land us in the poorhouse in Canada, where consumers pay some of the highest cellphone bills in the world (and the United States isn’t much better on the international tables, by the way – for really cheap cellular, Europe wins).
Particularly for those who get into data overage territory on a regular basis, it’s worth paying attention to how much data you’re using to watch videos. Once again: Pay more attention to when you’re on WiFi, and watch the videos then.
The first step to changing one’s ways might be simply understanding how much those videos are costing. To begin, make a habit of periodically checking in on your mobile data usage. If you don’t know how, it’s easy, and there are plenty of resources to show you (this article tells you how to do so with and without specialized apps for the purpose).
What data costs
Let’s imagine you have a fairly typical-for-2017 data plan that allows you two gigabytes per month before you hit a limit and start going into overage fees.
We looked at six Canadian providers’ plans and worked out that the average cost of data is $25 for two gigabytes. (If you’re wonky enough to want to see our reasoning, scroll to the end of this story.**)
To put it another way, data costs you around $1.25 per 100 megabytes until you reach your limit.
After that, $5 per 100 megabytes is the default going rate. (An exception: Freedom Mobile promises that “even after you use all your full-speed data, you can still use data, but at reduced speeds. We don't charge you extra or cut you off.” Nice.)
Video apps that are killing your data plan
So, how much data is 100 megs? It’s easy to work out that it’s a 5% chunk of your ordinary, average two-gigabyte plan (or, again, $1.25 worth). But how much video does that get you on, say, YouTube?
This is a surprisingly complicated question because every video of a cat ringing a bell is like a special snowflake, with a different combination of resolution, bitrate, quality, and length. Each video is uploaded at a particular default resolution, and some are set to high-definition. These videos will stream at high-definition on your device unless you tweak the YouTube app’s settings otherwise. (Meanwhile, if you’re like most people, you won’t even notice the extra clarity of a high-resolution video on a teeny weeny cellphone screen anyway.)
How-to Geek dubbed YouTube “a mobile data hog,” warning that “even at lower resolutions, YouTube videos can really add up.” The site used the four-minute-ish video for Gangnam Style by K-pop star Psy as a metric (because it’s the most-viewed YouTube video of all time) and found that if you stream the official version at its full 1080p resolution, you’ve drained 73.5 megs – about a dollar’s worth of data for a Canadian consumer – by the time the horsey has danced his last.
You should therefore definitely follow the instructions here to prevent the YouTube app from streaming HD videos.
How-to Geek worked out that if you go through that process and watch at a resolution of 360 pixels (grainy, but acceptable for mobile), you’re looking at a data consumption rate of 20 megabytes per four-minute-(ish) video, which will add up … especially if you’re like most people and you never just watch one video.
If Google’s former CBO was correct and the average YouTube session now lasts 40 minutes, and you choose to consume those 40 minutes over your cellular network, your session eats through some 200 megabytes, or 10% of your plan.
At a sort-of-high-but-still-reasonable resolution of 720 pixels, 40 minutes (or roughly 10 viewings of Gangnam Style) works out to a princely 446 megabytes. Call it a quarter of your monthly plan.
What about Netflix? The streaming TV and movie provider has helped by giving us a guide: About one gigabyte per hour at standard definition, and three gigabytes for high-definition.
Translation: A full episode of Orange Is the New Black eats up nearly half your plan in SD, and your entire plan plus at least $30 worth of extra data in HD.
Or: If you watch The Godfather’sthree hours at high definition, your entire data plan will vanish before Luca Brasi does. Even at standard definition, your whole plan will get the Moe Greene special.
Apps with videos (that you don’t necessarily think of as video apps)
When Facebook introduced autoplay video in 2014, some people complained about spikes in data usage. But incremental changes happen all the time on social media, and for most of us they just become a fact of life: There are videos in your Facebook feed that play automatically, and who cares?
Twitter now features autoplay videos, too. Meanwhile, on Instagram and Snapchat, videos start preloading when you get a notification, so that they’re cued up and ready to roll when (or if) you do choose to view them.
(I fired up Snapchat for the first time in months and it used up 7.85 megabytes before I had played any videos at all. My fiancée sent me a video at my bidding, and the notification used another 2.4 megabytes, as tracked by the My Data Manager app, before I even watched it. Finally, when I did watch the video – if you must know, it was nine seconds of our dog blinking, in evident perplexity – all of a sudden I was up to 18 megabytes.)
The good news is that all of these apps offer ways to toggle off the autoplay/preload features and reduce the amount of data they use. Go digging around in the settings – often represented by a gear symbol, or sometimes three vertical dots on Android versions – and you should find options that turn off preloading of videos (Instagram and Snapchat) and autoplaying (Facebook and Twitter) over mobile data.
As you’ll likely discover, the default settings you’ve been using all along are the ones that will burn up your data the fastest. Often that’s just how the default is set. For example, in Twitter’s mobile app for Android, there’s a header in settings called “Data Usage.” Tap on it and you’ll likely discover that the option for “video autoplay” is set to “Mobile data & WiFi.” Change it to “WiFi only” or “Never” to save yourself a bunch of data.
If you get stuck on changing your settings and you’re on iOS (i.e., Apple) user, look here for instructions for toggling social media apps so they use less data.
What about your browser? Yep, it’s chewing through data, too, and again that’s largely thanks to videos. There are autoplay videos all over the internet (including, ironically, at that page we shared in the last paragraph).
Will these videos autoplay on your phone’s browser? On iPhones, the merciful answer is no. By default, Safari does not autoplay videos on an HTML (i.e., web) page. The videos wait until the user presses play.
On Android device’s stock Chrome browser, on the other hand, autoplay videos will roll unless you go to your settings and turn on a little-known function called “data saver.” (And when you toggle that on, Chrome will also download compressed versions of web pages that eat up slightly less data than usual. The data savings are small – but hey, better than nothing.)
Data hogs that aren’t related to video
We’ll hit pause on the video issue for a moment to consider some of the other activities and processes that can drain your data.
People talk about them in the same breath as video, in terms of them being monsters that eat your mobile data. But bear in mind they are generally pretty demons problems by comparison.
Non-video things that should you worry (a little bit) include:
Apps that use location tracking. Articles about data usage often warn us to watch for apps that keep tabs on our location. For example, the Uber app started to track user locations around the clock (as in, not just when you’re looking for a ride) as of last fall, causing people to lose their mindsfear for their privacy.
Notwithstanding other concerns, location tracking doesn’t seem to be much of a problem when it comes to eating data. Take the Uber example: My app has used just over 360 kilobytes over the past month. For its part, Google Maps used 1.87 megabytes in the background over the same time period, which is still under 0.1% of a two-gigabyte plan.
Apps that back up your files in the cloud. Services like iCloud and Google Photos could potentially be massive data hogs, given the relatively large size and number of files some of us upload to the cloud from our devices.
However, these apps tend to be set by default to “WiFi upload only,” in which case they won’t eat up your cellular data anyway. (You may as well look at your data usage and settings to make sure.)
WiFi assist. This is an iOS feature that automatically switches your data usage from WiFi to cellular if your WiFi connection is poor (for an explanation of what it is and how it works, readthis). Some experts say you should turn it off to save data. Yet from what we’ve seen, WiFi assist uses relatively little data for a typical user (our colleague one desk over, who is a heavy user of her phone, had only spent 140 megabytes through WiFi assist over 16 months, while another had used a minuscule 175 kilobytes since resetting her data tracking a week earlier. These piddling amounts that made us all conclude that WiFi assist is a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ kind of problem.
What about music, you ask?
You probably don’t need to worry about listening to music over mobile data. Music streaming has nothing on video when it comes to blazing through your data plan.
How-to Geek’s analysis looked at data usage for popular music service Spotify and concluded that it would take you about 15 hours of listening at its “high quality” setting (that’s 160 kilobytes per second) to use up one gigabyte of data.
To use up a gigabyte of data at “normal quality” (96 kilobytes per second, which sounds close enough to FM radio to be acceptable to most non-audiophiles) will take you some 24 to 25 hours.
To put it another way, how much do you stream Spotify over mobile data every month? If it’s four hours, you’re talking about about 280 megabytes of usage – just over an eighth of our typical two-gigabyte plan. You’ll only get into trouble if you’re using it quite a bit more than that.
If you’re using Spotify or another music streaming service less than an hour or two a week, you may as well just stream everything. Don’t download the music. Save the storage space on your phone for something more valuable. Like videos you will want to watch over and over and over again. Ding!
P.S. Reading this article on the Billy app takes somewhere between one and two megabytes.
** Note about the cost of Canadian data plans
To determine the implied cost of two gigs of data, we took the cost of each carrier’s unlimited talk-and-text-only plans – i.e., with no data – and subtracted the amount of a talk-text-and-data plan from this figure, to determine how much of your plan pays for data. For example, an unlimited talk+text plan from Rogers costs $39, and an unlimited talk and text and 2 GB data plan costs $90, which implies that the data costs $51. If you’re still curious, see this chart.