:News from the new wild western electronic frontier.
Keith Newman author of Connecting the Clouds  - the history of the Internet in New Zealand (InternetNZ and Activity Press, 2008)

Avoiding shock, horror
video download charges

User pays is still alive and well, even with YouTube and Facebook
writes Keith Newman

26 June 2010

recall when music downloads first became fashionable and internet companies were charging by the megabyte there were many horror stories around escalating telephone bills as enthusiasts downloaded albums worth of songs or tried to acquire movies.

I got caught out myself with a $500 bill when my son downloaded a few songs and listened to streaming radio which I had thought at the time would be within my meager data cap.

A friend, who had been delightfully prolific, sharing historical YouTube clips of New Zealand music on Facebook, has just contacted me astounded at how his monthly internet bill just showed up with an astounding $750 charge.

“I didn’t think I was downloading anything, just streaming clips online,” he exclaimed. I thought he was joking and asked if he’s been doing this via cellphohe. No he’s got a satellite dish on his office roof in the outback of Taranaki which handles his phone and internet connection. All I could says is “man, you need a new plan”.

But it got me thinking about my own recent activities online as interaction with my Facebook friends is becoming more interesting by the week as we share all manner of music and knowledge and ideas.

So how many adventurous folk are enticed into sampling the rich media marvels of the internet by sharing clips on Facebook and YouTube without first counting the cost?

What should you reasonably be expecting to pay for the privilege of viewing or sharing 30 or so YouTube video clips on Facebook a month on top of your normal internet usage. Should it make all that much difference? What should the buyer be aware of?

If you are listening to streaming audio, a radio programme for example, expect it to chew up around 60Mb per hour at 128kbit/sec. Downloading a four minute long MP3 file might use 5Mb of your data and low resolution streaming video, a tutorial or TV news clip for example, could take up around 140Mb per hour.

Downloading a video file can takes up to 10Mb of space for every minute depending on quality and compression levels; in other words about 100Mb for a high quality 10 minute video clip.

The popular view seems to be that because you are viewing this clip from a video hosting site such as YouTube you are only viewing a steaming video which doesn’t use up nearly as much of your precious ISP data allocation.

However, the bandwidth you are charged for by your ISP is the amount downloaded and uploaded from your computer. Because all the videos on YouTube are in ‘download’ mode this means that when you click on the play button they are downloaded to the ‘temporary files’ folder on your computer in the background as they are playing on screen.

Now if you view a 10 minute video ten times a week you’ve just chewed up 4Gb of your monthly data allowance; when you reach the limit of your data cap the connection will either slow down considerably or the megabyte clock will kick in and extra charges will show up on your account.

The news gets even worse if you are playing high definition files; while they’re becoming more mainstream the data stream you download is much richer and will blow your cap more quickly at up to 10-15Mb per minute.

The only upside is can play the video a second and third time without incurring major cost because it’s already on your system.

The whole download drama highlight the inadequacy of our international bandwidth links, the fear of local ISPs of letting the cork out of the bandwidth bottle while the on-demand model is still in its infancy, in terms of streaming content anyway.

This was clearly illustrated when Telecom pulled the plug on its  Big Time uncapped data plan launched on July 1 2009 offering all you can eat bandwidth for $70 a month, or $60 a month if bundled with other Telecom services.

New Zealand remains one of the few OECD countries where Internet users are penalised if they use more than an allocated monthly amount of data.
 Even the Big Time account was criticised because the bandwidth available to users was throttled back if they used over a certain amount. 

In 2008 Telecom dropped its Go Large offering after a complaint about throttling back the speeds offered and it was eventually fined $500,000.

Telecom insisted, when word got out last month (May 2010), that it would inform customers of the Big Time, based on their data use, which option they would be moved to; most likely the $80 a month Pro plan which has a 40Gb cap or the 10Gb Explorer plan.  Telecom said it was concerned that a few users had been misusing the count and clocking up hundreds of gigabytes of usage per month.

The fact is these are still relatively early days for the digital convergence of broadcast and streaming media, although TiVo and on-demand TV over the Internet via other source is not charged for once your locked into a contract or pay a subscription to a particular ISP.

For the moment though in terms of most internet streaming, it’s still user pays all the way. What you watch you pay for and if you haven’t factored this in you could be in for a nasty surprise. If rich media continues to appeal then shop around to find an ISP that offers a decent data allowance, at least 6-10Gb or more for an affordable flat rate fee ($60-$70 max).

The only other solution is to moderate your online activities by checking your data use on the ISPs home page to ensure you leave yourself room enough to get through the usual email downloads and web browsing before taking another hit of those data rich YouTube or Facebook visuals. 

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