Going On A Data Diet

The internet is fast becoming the central pipe through which we consume all types of media. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube, thousands of hours of HD video is available on demand, packaged and ready to stream into our homes. Sometimes it can be a lot to take in.It used to be so simple. The web was mostly text and email, and so we didn't really think about the amount of data we used each months. When you consider that an HD video is generally encoded to be about 1.8GB to 4.0GB per hour, it's no surprise that a given household could easily cut through 250-400GB or more in a month. That's a lot of media and unlike TV, with data we're given a really good measure of exactly how much media we're consuming. As ISPs in the U.S. have started capping data (long since a way of life in Canada) and charging steep fees for overages, suddenly we're forced to consider how much we're consuming each month. The ISPs have forced us to be more aware of how much data we consume, but how does consuming less data, a "data diet", so to speak, effect how we use the internet?

Over the past year I've switched from home broadband to a 3G mobile wi-fi host spot (pictured below). It's a pay as you go device which costs me very little each month, but offers a max of 10GB per month before I start getting throttled. Since it's a 3G connection, speeds and coverage are generally dependable, but severely limit the amount of full HD video I can watch each month. I'm sure for many of you that would seem like far too little data to satisfy your cravings for streaming video. I thought so at first as well, but it's strange how infrequently I feel like I'm missing out and how much I save by ignoring the other bandwidth heavy services the web has come to offer.

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Though generally pretty cheap, Netflix is still an added bill I avoid each month because of my data diet. I don't pay for any music streaming or online gaming subscription services either. But it's not just about saving money, it's about saving time. Undistracted by a near endless list of B-movies and TV shows at my disposal, I generally just relax. I enjoy using more personal devices, like my iPad, to sit and read a few blogs or play a quick game or two when I need diversion. It's not like I'm starved for media either, since 10GB per month is more than enough for me to listen to my favorite podcasts and watch plenty of trailers and short videos, opting for the lower resolution video options where resolution is less important to the experience (kitten videos don't need to be watched in HD to appreciate the cuteness).

Surprisingly, even in my work as a freelance developer and designer, I don't need much data at all for most tasks. Generally in web design you want to keep your web applications and graphics as lightweight as possible, and my data diet keeps me ever aware of those uploaded file sizes. On the odd occasion I have a data hungry task like uploading or downloading video, I just take the opportunity to enjoy some free wi-fi at a local cafe (it only feels a bit like I'm cheating on my diet).

I first opted for the wireless hotspot out of convenience and for the want and need to be connected wherever I went. That said, having done the research, and considered the math, I knew I would likely need to change my habits online. At first I checked my usage often and worried about each video I watched, but after a few weeks I just stopped noticing I was even consuming less. Sure, maybe I've missed out on Game of Thrones, and sure a data diet isn't for everyone (especially if they've avoided a data cap). But in my case, bringing down my data consumption (and with it my media consumption) has made be feel like I have more time to be productive and spend less time worrying about what I'm missing out on. Plus, like any decision you make that has you consuming less, there is a certain joy in the minimalism of getting by with less.

The ISPs in Canada and the U.S. will eventually have to raise their caps as the web becomes more and more data-rich, but here's some food for thought: maybe a self imposed upper limit on our consumption has some advantages as well. The greatest gift the web gives us is access to information and better communication. While video is an integral part of that, it's still mostly a one way conversation that has us consuming more than we're contributing. It's worth considering, and from my experience reducing the amount of data, and specifically the amount of streaming video, I consume each month has been a welcome change.

(Images: Sean Rioux)