Between the surprising affordability of 4K TVs and Netflix and Amazon's commitment to delivering 4K content, the future is clearly ultra high-def. That's great. But it's also going to wreak havoc with your broadband data caps. Welcome to the age of the home internet overage fee.
Based on our tiny survey asking how often people blow through their data caps, it's clear that most people either aren't aware that the exist or aren't worried about them. And that's fair! Many of you don't have a cap, and even if you do, you either don't go over or your company doesn't enforce it. But that's likely going to change soon, especially if Comcast successfully acquires Time Warner Cable. If and when they start enforcing that 300GB per month limit, 4K is going to make you blow through it in no time. Here's some quick back of the napkin math to show just how bad it could get.
Streaming in 1080p on Netflix takes up 4.7GB/hour. So a regular one-hour episode of something debiting less than 5GB from your allotment is no big deal. However, with 4K, you've got quadruple the pixel count, so you're burning through 18.8GB/hour. Even if you're streaming with the new h.265 codec—which cuts the bit rate by about half, but still hasn't found its way into many consumer products—you're still looking at 7GB/hour.
But you're not watching just one episode, are you? Of course not! You're binging on House of Cards, watching the whole series if not in one weekend then certainly in one month. That's 639 minutes of top-quality TV, which in 4K tallies up to 75GB if you're using the latest and greatest codec, and nearly 200GB if not. That means, best case scenario, a quarter of your cap—a third, if you're a U-Verse customer with a 250GB cap—spent on one television show. Throw in a normal month's internet usage, and you're toast.
Prefer movies to TV shows? Sure! Sony's Unlimited Video service has 70 4K titles and counting available to stream, but good luck renting very many of them each month. A Sony rep has said that a single two-hour movie download will eat up 40GB. Basically, you get seven movies in 4K and you're done. Fourteen hours of streaming for the entire month. And that's assuming you don't use the internet for anything else, at all, ever.
Or maybe you're a console gamer. If so, good luck streaming anything in 4K and having enough room to download any new titles to your Xbox One. Call of Duty: Ghosts? That's 39.5GB. Madden NFL 25? Another 12.51GB. A couple of games here, a couple of Netflix series there, and you're suddenly looking at all kinds of overage charges.
And those charges add up. Comcast, for example, reserves the right to bill you an extra $10 for every 50GB above the cap. So you can squeak in maybe a movie and a short TV show, and you've tacked another ten bucks on your bill for the month.
So far, Comcast has been lax in enforcement, but it's actively testing out pricing models in Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. As a rep told Gizmodo:
What we are doing today in select markets is conducting a pilot program that eliminates a fixed amount of data that a customer can consume and instead offer a data plan that includes 300 GB of data for use each month combined with the flexibility to buy additional buckets of data in 50 GB increments for $10 each. There is no limit on the number of buckets a consumer can purchase and so therefore there is no cap.
Call it what you will, but that's not unlimited, it likely won't last, and bottom line: it will cost you to watch 4K on Comcast. Time Warner, meanwhile, said basically nothing that gives any indication of a contingency plan for a higher amount of 4K traffic:
We're not treating the traffic any differently, and we're constantly upgrading our infrastructure to handle increased traffic. Time Warner Cable offers different tiers of Internet service to accommodate customers who have different usage patterns.
Again, this is not a problem for right now, but it's coming sooner than you think. Vizio's selling a 4K TV for the relatively low price of $1,000. The price of 4K monitors has also dropped sharply across the board. You can get a pretty decent one from companies like Asus and Lenovo for around $800. And unlike ignorable gimmicks like 3D, the transition to 4K is an inevitability. It is the new standard.
It should be noted that 4K streaming video will continue to be compressed more and more efficiently as new codecs come into play, but even at half the bandwidth, you're still just a long weekend away from blowing through the whole thing. The hope, of course, is that broadband providers increase their caps proportionally with usage. That's what Joris Evers, Netflix's head of communication, told us he expects:
There will be little to watch in 4K initially so we don't expect that to be an issue. Over time caps are likely to go up and speeds will increase too.
As a counterpoint, when's the last time anyone won a bet by taking the side of ISP generosity?
We've gotten so used to shelling out data penalties on our phones, it's hard to remember a time when everything was unlimited. That same transition is happening now, in our homes, inspired and enabled by the 4K revolution and cable consolidation. The future is crystal clear, ultra high definition. But damn if it's not also going to be pricey.
Update: This post initially did not take into account h.265 compression, which has been approved but not widely impelemented. We've adjusted some numbers to reflect that. It's still pretty grim!