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09/22/2010

Netflix hits Canada - but how will it hit your bandwidth?

Theeey're hee-eeere! Netflix finally launched its Canadian service this week. The streaming-only service will be offering relatively cheap movie downloads up here, at just $7.99 per month for unlimited movies and TV shows. But will we have the bandwidth to watch them?

It's a cheap service, and while the number of available titles on the Canadian site is relatively low - 7,500 compared to 20,000 in the US - it's a convenient alternative to conventional DVD-by-mail services such as Zip.ca. Zip.ca floated the idea of a movie download service with Sonic Solutions last year, but there's nothing on the Zip site about that these days.

You'll be able to stream Netflix movies through your iPhone, iPad, PS3, or Wii. XBox 360 streaming won't arrive until later this fall. That will be a shame for those Telus customers who procured an XBox 360 from Telus as part of their high-speed Internet deal, because the telco allows you to stream your cable through that box. Having the Netflix service on it too would make for a very convenient system for the living room.

We poor, beleaguered Canucks don't get all-you-can-eat flat rate broadband. We're allowed to download a certain amount, and then we have to suffer a threatening phone call or letter from the ISP involved, along with a possible hefty charge for every extra Gigabyte we use. So, how will Netflix viewing affect our bandwidth?

According to Netflix's published encoding rates, you're going to spend up to around 1.5Gb of precious Canadian bandwidth watching a 90-minute movie in standard definition. If you get into high-definition movies, that'll bump up to more like 2.5Gb for a 720p movie running an hour and a half. Those figures jump to 1.9Gb and 3.4Gb respectively for a two-hour movie, incidentally.

Netflix uses variable bit rate encoding that has been revised over multiple generations, which means that these figures can never be anything more than a ballpark estimate. Using them as an average, that means that you'll be able to watch around 40 standard-definition movies on a high-end Rogers Extreme package with an 80Gb cap, or around half that if you're watching high definition. That falls to just standard def 7 movies if you're using Rogers' Lite service - and if you bust the cap, you'll potentially be paying another $4 per gigabyte.

You might not believe that you'll watch 20-40 movies a month, and maybe you won't. But Netflix has TV shows, too, which are more bite-sized, and easier to watch in between doing other things. You're more likely to plough through the past five seasons of Trailer Park boys - or any of the other shows that the service is offering. If you find the service intuitive enough to use, you could easily go over your cap - especially given that you'll still be using the Internet for other things such as surfing Youtube, online gaming, and streaming music. Our estimates above are for broadband accounts used for Netflix viewing alone.  

What all this means is that you'll definitely want to consider Netflix, but ensure that your high-speed Internet account is robust enough to support the number of movies you're planning on watching. Users of emaciated high-speed packages with low caps will get into trouble quickly.

And incidentally, if you haven't password protected your WiFi network already, do it now, lest a movie-happy neighbour decides to take advantage.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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