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Purge Pay TV, Binge on Data: Cord-Cutters Are Gulping Down Bandwidth

What do the cable guys think about that?

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Here’s a question that may be increasingly relevant for some of you: If you don’t pay for cable, and you get all your video from the Internet instead, how much bandwidth do you eat up each month?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Much more than everyone else.

Sandvine, the broadband networking company that provides periodic reports on Web usage, says that the top 15 percent of streaming video users go through 212 gigabytes of data month. That’s more than seven times the average broadband user, who uses 29 gigabytes.

Here are Sandvine’s numbers. The first column represents the top 15th percentile of video and audio streamers in North America, the next column represents the 15th-to-80th percentile, and the last column is the bottom 15th. (Click to enlarge):

The main caveat to consider here is that Sandvine doesn’t know that this group of broadband users are actually relying on the Web for all their video, instead of using TV. It just thinks they are, based on their outsized consumption. It figures they are streaming something like 100 hours of video a month.

But if you’re okay using that as a starting point, the data can lead you off to some interesting roads.

For instance: What happens as those maybe-cord-cutters increase their data usage? Even if they continue to stream the same number of hours of video, they are likely to consume more bandwidth, simply because there will be more high-quality video coming down the pike.

And if that happens, what happens as that contingent runs into monthly data usage caps that broadband providers have installed, or are contemplating installing?

AT&T, for instance, charges its broadband users extra fees once they exceed 250GB a month. Comcast*, which used to have a 250GB cap, has scrapped that and is experimenting with a 300GB limit, among other options.

And as heavy broadband users start bumping up against data caps, it will also highlight the way that some broadband providers differentiate between digital video they send through their own “managed service” pipes — which doesn’t count against usage caps — versus digital video served up by the likes of Netflix, which does count against caps.

That’s what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was talking about a couple of years ago, when he took to Facebook to complain about Comcast’s video policies, and pointed out that video served up via its Xfinity app didn’t count against caps. That means that if you watched an episode of “Game of Thrones” via an HBO Go app, that hour would count against your limit. But if you watched via Xfinity, it would be free, data-wise.

Back then, this was primarily a theoretical argument. Now it is getting closer to a real-world issue, which is why it’s interesting to think about this in the context of the current net neutrality debate.

Speaking of Netflix: Sandvine’s semi-annual report continues to show that Netflix generates about a third of the Web’s traffic during prime-time hours. In fact, it has increased: Sandvine says Netflix streams accounted for 34.2 percent of “downstream” traffic in March. That’s up from 31.6 percent in last fall’s report.

Netflix has continued to add subscribers since fall, but Sandvine’s analysts figure that the leap has more to do with the kind of video Netflix is streaming, since more of its video is now available in a higher-bitrate “Super HD” format.

Meanwhile Amazon, and other streaming competitors like Hulu, have also increased. But they remain far behind, with each accounting for less than two percent of the Web’s traffic.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is an investor in Revere Digital, the parent company of Re/code.

This article originally appeared on

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