Thursday, March 8, 2012

Stingy LTE Data-plans will ruin the new iPad's Party

The new iPad  has 2048 x 1536 pixels screen resolution. The best way to understand this is that it has a higher resolution than your normal 1080p full HD TV. Let us contemplate on how much data is needed to drive this high resolution screen. Lets talk video first. The Verizon FIOS HD channels typically come in at 15Mbps. That is almost 2MB/second. Now let us switch to using the new iPad  as a navigation device in the car. The iPad 3 resolution is more than 5 times as much as an iPhone 4 (960 x 640 pixels). This means that Google maps will have to load about 5 times as much map tile data on the new iPad to fill up the screen. From what I read on the Internet, users report that the iPhone 4 burns through about 30MB of bandwidth per hour when Google maps is used for navigation. So we are talking about 30x5 = 150MB/hour of data usage on the new iPad when it is used as a navigation device. Another example: in order for jpeg images to completely fill up the new iPad's screen without any software interpolation, they are going to need to be over 3 mega pixels each. That is about 1MB of data transfer per JPEG image!

Ok, but why do you need full screen apps and content, you may ask. Can't you compromise on the size and save bandwidth? No, because the new iPad's screen size is only 9.7inches across and chances are that we use the new iPad while holding it in our hands. If this is the case, then interpolation (up-sampling to fill up the pixels with guessed values) will be really ugly at best (say for jpeg pictures), and unusable at worst (say, maps with minute features marked on them). So while its acceptable to see a standard definition channel on an HD TV from a distance, it will be unacceptable seeing it from close range on the new iPad in full screen mode.

Now you might say, thats alright because we have LTE to tame the iPad 3 bandwidth sucking machine. Upto 100Mbps if you 've heard all the marketing around LTE.

But do we have the data plans? To quote from Techcrunch, here are the LTE plans on offer in the US today.

AT&T is offering three plans: 250MB for $14.99, 3GB for $30, and 5GB for $50. On the 250MB plan, you’ll be charged an additional $15 for each 250MB allotment you go over. On the two bigger plans, it’s a $10 overage fee per each additional 1GB of data.

Verizon is offering four different plans: 1GB for $20, 2GB for $30, 5GB for $50, and 10GB for $80. Their overage fees are a little more straightforward — it’s an extra $10 for each 1GB over.

Lets plug some of these numbers into the applications we alluded to earlier in this post. Lets say, that you have opted to spend $30 per month on your new iPad's LTE connection. How far will your $30 take you?

AT&T's $30 3GB LTE plan

Verizon's  $30 2GB LTE plan

HD-quality  video 
@ 2MB/sec for HD video you get only 1500 seconds (25min) of HD video from your MONTHLY data plan.

@ 2MB/sec for HD video you get only 1000 seconds (17min) of HD video from your MONTHLY data plan.

Google maps

@150MB/hour you get only 20 hours of Google maps from your MONTHY data plan

@150MB/hour you get only 13 hours of Google maps from your MONTHY data plan

Simply put, these data-plans just won't work for the new iPad. What is really surprising is that LTE, all through its long standardization process in the last decade, always promised lower cost/bit and higher spectral efficiency (slated to be 2x-5x, meaning LTE can pack 5 times as many bits in the same frequency spectrum compared to 3G). Lots of new technology was put into the standard  to support very high speed wireless mobile broadband services (read more about this on the LTE Wikipedia page).

Where are all those technology savings  going? Granted that telcos are making big capital expenditures rolling out the LTE infrastructure, but consumers are paying LTE  patent royalties (10s of dollars) too, every time they buy LTE-enabled devices such as the new iPad.

Why are the data plans so anemic? 

Can we as consumers really hope to enjoy the benefits of high-resolution mobile technology and LTE when Telcos are cutting out all the joy even before the first new iPad is shipped?

UPDATE: Related WSJ article: Video Speed Trap Lurks in New iPad 

UPDATE: Another angle from CNN, why images look so bad on the new iPad: Why do magazines look so bad on the new iPad?