How great is it that high-definition video is now portable? Thanks to cloud computing, superfast 4G networks and tablets with high-resolution screens, we can watch thousands of movies and TV shows in lush, beautiful clarity wherever we go.
In a way, that is pretty great, as the millions of people who have bought the new iPad with retina display and LTE connections have already seen. But in another way, it’s going to quickly become not so great: As hi-def video – or rather, the data bandwidth to deliver it – becomes a commodity for more people, that commodity will start to become much more expensive. Not just for consumers, but for the companies that will increasingly need more wireless spectrum and wired infrastructure to handle the surge in data demand.
Call it the curse of the cloud. The proliferation of online video services and portable devices to watch them on have added congestion to data networks even as wireless carriers impose fees on its biggest data users. According to Bytemobile, video accounted for half of all mobile data traffic in February, up from 40 percent only a year earlier.
And that was before the arrival of the new iPad, which has four times as many pixels as the iPad 2. More pixels can enhance hi-def video but requires more data. Demand for wireless data will rise even higher once more LTE smartphones – including, most likely, the iPhone 5 expected this year – start streaming video and other high-bandwidth content on them. If carriers are overwhelmed by the demand, as AT&T was with its notoriously unreliable 3G networks, wireless service will grow more spotty over time. But we’ll be paying more for it.
We’re already seeing some of this happening with the LTE iPads. Just ask the guy who used his brand new iPad to watch NCAA games while attending NCAA games, blowing through his 2GB allotment in less than two days. Or the USA Today columnist who says he did the same just by downloading apps. Meanwhile, complaints were surfacing on message boards that AT&T’s LTE networks were dragging in some urban areas as people played with their new iPads.