Skip to main content

Just in Time for MDTV: AT&T Ending Unlimited Wireless Plans

When talking to people about ATSC mobile DTV, I sometimes get the response, "Why do we need it? We can stream any video we want on our iPhone over the Internet." The news release AT&T Announces New Lower-Priced Wireless Data Plans to Make Mobile Internet More Affordable to More People (opens in new tab) should put an end to that argument. Indeed, Business Insider's headline was AT&T Just Put A Bullet in Mobile DTV. The "bullet" was not aimed at ATSC mobile DTV, but Internet based mobile DTV.

Under the AT&T's new plan, consumers will pay an average of $10/GB for data. Customers who watch too much online video could be in for "bill shock." I expect other wireless carriers, at least the major ones, will follow AT&T's lead. Note that if you read the fine print, some plans advertised as "unlimited" are really capped at 5 GB/month in the terms of service by saying that if you are using more than 5 GB/month, you must be violating the terms of service. Exceeding those limits can be a lot more costly than AT&T's new plan.

As I've pointed out before, using the Internet to distribute video programming is horribly inefficient. Every viewer needs their own slice of bandwidth to view the program. If someone sitting next to them is watching the same program on the same wireless carrier, twice the bandwidth will be needed. Add a third person and it triples, and so on. Compare this to a broadcast model, where the same bandwidth is required to reach 1 million people as is required to reach 1 person. As demand for mobile video grows, even with more spectrum, wireless carriers will have trouble meeting consumers insatiable demand for programming, especially when they start trying to watch streaming HDTV over a wireless Internet connection! It looks like broadcast mobile DTV is ending up as the only economical way to provide consumers live mobile video.

To get an idea of how various on-line activities impact bandwidth usage, check out AT&T's bandwidth calculator (opens in new tab).

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.