With game streaming service Google Stadia dropping next month, a new study suggests that six million gamers are about to get a crash course on the problems with broadband usage caps.
Broadband caps are, if you didn’t know, complete nonsense. There’s no technical reason for them to exist, and they don’t actually help internet service providers (ISPs) manage network congestion. Experts say the real purpose of such limits is to covertly jack up your already expensive broadband bill—and punish customers looking to cut the cord on traditional cable TV services.
Google’s new Stadia streaming service is about to shine a light on the unfairness of such limits. The service, which eliminates the local console by streaming all games from the cloud, will consume as much as 15.75 GB per hour at 4K resolution. With US monthly broadband caps as low as 150 GB in many regions, you can see the problem.
A new study by broadband availability tracking firm BroadbandNow found that 6 million of the country’s 34 million gamers will exceed their broadband caps using Stadia. ISPs impose usage caps as high as 1 terabyte, then sock you with additional surcharges for extra bandwidth consumed. Needless to say, that gets expensive quickly.
“Our survey findings point to a potential disconnect between consumers and the services they use, showing that our transition into game-streaming nirvana may be a bumpier one than many expect,” the study said.
According to data from The NPD Group, America's estimated 34 million gamers play 22 hours per week on average. Were those gamers to all shift to Stadia as their primary game platform at 4K, they’d burn through 1,386 GB of data monthly. And that’s just the bandwidth consumed by gaming; it doesn’t include music and video streaming or other activities.
The result will be an even higher broadband bill for US consumers who already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for bandwidth. For many this will be a surprise. Of the 943 gamers surveyed by the company, only 17 percent were certain they had a broadband cap. 21 percent say they weren’t sure one way or the other whether their broadband was metered.
In an interview with Gamespot last June, Google VP Phil Harrison attempted to downplay the threat US broadband caps pose to Stadia’s success.
“ISPs have a strong history of staying ahead of consumer trends and if you look at the history of data caps in those small number of markets...the trend over time, when music streaming and download became popular, especially in the early days when it was not necessarily legitimate, data caps moved up,” he said. “Then with the evolution of TV and film streaming, data caps moved up, and we expect that will continue to be the case.”
But that’s not actually true. Most ISPs see little competition in their markets, therefore there’s little to no incentive to raise caps or stop hammering consumers with spurious surcharges. As a result many caps haven’t risen much in the last decade. AT&T’s 150 GB monthly DSL cap and $10 per 50GB overage fees, for example, were imposed in 2011 and haven’t moved since.
Stadia users will have options to manage bandwidth, but none of them are particularly good.
Stadia can be streamed at lower resolution, but that defeats the point of the service as a replacement for traditional consoles. Some ISPs like Comcast also let users pay an additional $50 per month to avoid caps and overage fees, but many ISPs don’t offer such an option.
“The most surprising aspect of this data is probably that so much of the so-called hardcore gaming demographic is ill-positioned to take advantage of Stadia and similar services,” BroadbandNow Editor-in-chief Tyler Cooper told Motherboard.
He said game streaming providers will struggle to pitch their services as a symmetrical replacement for game consoles or PCs thanks to substandard US broadband.
“Only those users that are somewhat invested in gaming would be focused on being able to play using the highest graphical settings like 4K, 100+ FPS, etc., but those are the same consumers most likely to be unable to enjoy the service as intended,” he said.
Users lucky enough to have an uncapped broadband connection should be able to use Stadia to its fullest when the $10 per month service drops next month. But millions of American gamers are in store for some serious sticker shock when their bill comes due—courtesy of America’s barely-competitive broadband industry.