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What’s driving the growth of streaming video on mobile?

streaming video on mobileEverything is mobile these days. It seems like it’s taking over the world. People are using their mobile devices to check weather, calendars, and to post to social media. But video on mobile is fast becoming the largest factor in everyday data usage.

Ericsson’s annual mobility report looks at the future of mobile and makes predictions on usage through 2020. Interestingly, they predict the average monthly data usage per smartphone will rise from 900 MB in 2014 to 3.5 GB in 2020. That’s a fourfold growth in just six years. The data for “mobile PCs” and tablets show about an equal amount of increase in data usage on a mobile network.

The sharp increase in data usage, if you haven’t guessed yet, is primarily due to streaming video on mobile. In 2014, Ericsson estimates 45% of global mobile traffic is video related. They predict it will top 55% of worldwide mobile traffic by 2020.

Traditionally, the mobile video streaming experience hasn’t been very good. So what is driving the predicted increased usage, and the obviously related improved user experience? Ericsson mentions a few factors.

Usage of video usage on mobile is highly dependent on the type of network being used. 4G dominated networks provide the most bandwidth and best experience. 4G is being rolled out even in developing countries, providing access to people who may not have a landline or physical access to the Internet. Older networks (3G and GSM) have a smaller percentage of video usage accordingly.

The use of adaptive bitrate technologies (ABR) detect the network conditions in real time and adjust the stream automatically. This provides a better end user experience by eliminating stopping and starting and re-buffering during playback. Mobile network conditions can vary widely, so ABR provides a behind the scenes way to ensure good video quality under any condition.

But one of the main drivers of increased video viewing is the evolution of video codecs over time. Each successive generation aims to provide better video delivery. Ericsson estimates that a new codec needs to improve compression by 40-50 percent while maintaining video quality in order for the industry to adopt the new codecs. Alternatively, a new codec could provide improved video quality using the same network resources. Either way, the videos look and perform better to the viewers on mobile who will then watch more and more video.

If you follow the path of MPEG-2, MPEG-4, MPEG-4 AVC, through to HEVC, you’ll find the types of improvements Ericsson discusses. While it takes time for new codecs to be developed and accepted, it’s certain that by 2020 we’ll likely have better codecs available (if not yet adopted) to make mobile video even better.

The other side of this story though, is what people pay for their data usage and how much they are willing to spend for the luxury of video on the go. Do you already have a plan that lets you enjoy video without worrying about overage charges? How much would you pay for such a plan?

Oliver Burt

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