Vodafone’s Netflix sweetener is tasty, but it exposes the limitations of 4G data pricing

Vodafone racecar

4G is a wonderful road for mobile video to travel on – its high speeds and low latencies allow an unprecedented user experience when watching films and TV shows on the very small screen. However, decent-quality video uses bandwidth, and many carriers’ pricing remains incompatible with this new reality.

Case in point: on Thursday, the British operator Vodafone announced a promotional partnership with Netflix, through which customers on Vodafone Red 4G plans priced from £26 ($44) will from July be able to get a free 6-month subscription to the online video service. This is a new alternative option to free Spotify Premium access. As is the norm with Vodafone’s 4G plans, the first 3 months come with “as much U.K. mobile internet as you want” – after that, however, it’s back to standard data allowances.

Netflix, by its own guidance as passed to me by Vodafone, consumes 1GB of mobile data per hour, if the user is watching a standard-definition stream. Bump that up to high-definition – as you will no doubt want to do if you’ve got a snazzy new mobile device with retina or similar display – and you’re talking 3GB an hour.

Vodafone’s £26-a-month SIM-only deal provides 3GB of data a month. Even its priciest SIM-only deal, which I’d say offers its best value for money, costs £41 a month for 9GB of data. Three hours (two kids’ films, let’s say) of high-definition content on that plan, and any more surfing on that plan – even normal web usage – will take you over your limit.

I don’t want to knock Vodafone in particular. Indeed, the carrier should be commended for not sabotaging net neutrality by “zero-rating” the Netflix content (having it not count towards the allowance) and thereby disadvantaging Netflix rivals who want to deliver their services over Vodafone’s network. I also totally get that a good chunk if not most of this Netflix viewing will take place over users’ Wi-Fi connections, rather than troubling the mobile network. Also, it’s free stuff.

However, a promotion like this does highlight a certain market-driven absurdity that characterizes this stage in 4G’s development. The technology is new and the network upgrades recent or ongoing, so carriers are charging as much as they can, which involves setting usage limits that utterly stifle the potential of the technology — i.e. being a full replacement for fixed-line broadband, for some people.

Over time, these limitations will be eased, just as they were with 3G. But for now, for many people, going 4G is like being given a supercar with a tiny gas tank and only a monthly refill.

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