Apple and Disney’s video launches will highlight the limitations in U.S. mobile Video Experience

Apple is expected to launch its own video streaming service soon, showing just how important video has become to nearly every facet of the tech and media industries. And since this is Apple, we expect any new service to have a prominent place on iPhones and possibly on Android devices as well. Disney will join Apple in the video streaming world, putting its own high-profile family-centric content on a new service called Disney+ later this year. But supporting video on mobile devices raises an interesting question in the U.S. Would any mobile-centric video service Apple or Disney launches suffer from the limitations we've seen in U.S. mobile Video Experience?


In our recent State of Mobile Video and U.S. Mobile Network Experience reports, we found that the U.S. and its individual operators all garnered Fair ratings in our Video Experience metric. Fair means that video streamed to a device over a mobile connection generally demonstrates slow loading times and frequent interruptions in playback, especially at higher resolutions. Delving further into our measurements that make up that metric, though, we're able to quantify the characteristics that produce that level of mobile video quality in the U.S., specifically on 4G networks.

First, let's start with 4G Video Load Time, which is the average time in seconds users have to wait for a requested video to begin playing over a 4G connection. We found that Verizon had the best score in this metric with an average wait of 4.4 seconds, with T-Mobile close behind with a Video Load Time score of 4.8 seconds. Sprint fell to the bottom of our rankings with a Video Load Time of 5.6 seconds.

While 4-6 seconds is a noticeable amount of time to wait for a video to start playing, even this apparently small delay will become frustrating as users watch multiple videos. The longer the delay, the greater the risk a user will give up and click on something else instead. According to an Akamai study, any delay longer than 2 seconds risks user abandonment.

No matter how sophisticated a network or optimized a data service, we expect to see some lag before a streamed video begins rendering over a mobile connection. To put that in perspective, in Singapore — which is one of the highest rated countries in the world in Video Experience — all three operators had Video Load Times of under 3 seconds, according to our recent analysis.

Video Stalling Occurrence measures the percentage of users that experience any kind of interruption during video playback, whether it's due to buffering or stuttering in playback caused by a weak connection. A significant proportion of U.S. consumers experience interruptions in their mobile video, according to our analysis. Verizon scored best in this metric with a Video Stalling Occurrence of 16.9%. Sprint was hot on Verizon's heels with a score of 18.6%, while both T-Mobile and AT&T had scores above 25% in our measurements.

So what's causing this high rate of interruptions in U.S. mobile video? We can chalk it up primarily to the restrictions that most U.S operators place on video resolution. As operators limit the bandwidth available to a video stream this can make interruptions more likely for a few reasons. If the video bitrate goes over the available bandwidth the video will potentially stall and be downgraded to a lower resolution. Even in the case where the available bandwidth is enough to support the video bitrate, the margin between the two could be too tight to give the video enough time to build up what's called a buffer. The buffer is effectively an insurance policy which allows the video to continue to play even when there is a momentary interruption in the network connection. Without a sufficient buffer the video is more likely to stall unless the network connection is extremely consistent.

This also explains why Sprint garnered a much higher score than most of its competitors in Video Stalling Occurrence. Sprint only recently introduced restrictions on video resolution on its unlimited plans, so many users on Sprint's network won’t be encountering the same bandwidth barriers to an uninterrupted video stream (although this could change as more consumers sign up for Sprint's new unlimited plans). It's also worth calling out Verizon here as it managed to maintain a superior Video Stalling Occurence to its peers in our measurements, even though it places bandwidth restrictions on video consumed over its unlimited plans. But, as nearly 17% of Verizon's users experienced some kind of interruption in our video tests, its video stalling score was still quite high.

More tech industry players like Apple and Disney are jumping on the video streaming bandwagon and they're increasingly targeting these services at mobile users. But they'll have to contend with the fact that the mobile experience for streamed video isn't optimal in the U.S. Or perhaps Apple and Disney will need to apply their own restrictions on video streamed over mobile connections in the U.S. to ensure their customers receive a good Video Experience over today's networks.

Luckily tomorrow's networks are on their way. The operators launching new high-powered 5G networks aim to resolve many of the issues mobile video currently faces in the U.S. Lower latency connections on 5G will help improve Video Load Times. Meanwhile, 5G's greatly expanded capacity will not only make connection speeds — and therefore video playback — more consistent, but might even give operators the necessary headroom to ease existing restrictions on video resolution.