Will Bandwidth Caps Ruin Google's Streaming Music Plans?

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If the rumors prove accurate, and it certainly looks like they will, Google will introduce a mobile streaming music service à la Spotify or Rdio sooner rather than later. The big idea is that you’ll be able to listen to any song you want on demand so long as you have network access, either via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G/etc. It’s music in the cloud, in other words. Google won’t be the first company to offer mobile streaming music, but there’s something different between “small-company-launches-mobile-cloud-music-with-indie-record-labels” and “Google-launches-mobile-cloud-music-with-every-label-on-the-planet.”

Not that we’re even at that point yet. Word on the street is that Google is still in negotiations with the big four records labels, and it’s not yet set in stone that the service will launch without any real label support. A streaming music service without any music is essentially pointless, yes.

But let’s assume that Google manages to convince all the big labels to sign up. Hooray! Now I can listen to “Friday” on my Android phone, whenever and wherever I am. It’s a dream come true.

Well, maybe. The problem with these streaming services is that they’re 100 percent dependent upon the kindness of strangers. In this case, the strangers are wireless providers: your AT&Ts, your Verizon Wirelesses, and so on. The days of being being able to subscribe to a $50 per month, all-you-can-eat (bandwidth) package are pretty much over. AT&T did away with it, and Verizon Wireless recently said that it, too, was considering moving to a tiered model. Say, $50 per month for 200MB of bandwidth, with an additional $10 per megabyte. Whatever the terms may be, how willing would you be to pay $30 for the ability to hear “Friday” standing in line at the local Whole Foods?

Let’s also not pretend that the wireless providers will, out of the kindness of their heart, bring back all-you-can-eat plans. And why should they, when they know full well that the next phone you’re going to buy will be a smartphone, and that you’ll be using it more to watch YouTube videos than actually make a phone call? (It also doesn’t help that the wireless providers are now merging left and right. As if less choice was ever beneficial to consumers.) Traditional ISPs are also clamping down on the all-you-can-eat party: AT&T recently announced that it will be implementing bandwidth caps on its subscribers. Granted, these caps are relatively generous by today’s standards, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always look at 200GB as a “large” amount of data.

So while the idea of a large-scale streaming music service is certainly appealing, the more you think about the increasingly unattractive wireless situation (at least here in the U.S.) the excitement, I don’t know, lessens.

It’s hard to get excited about a service that you know will have the life squeezed out of it before it even gets off the ground.