Google brings Play Music to Canada—just watch your mobile data cap: Peter Nowak



A new media streaming service is launching in Canada and with it, of course, come more data-cap concerns.

Google on Monday announced the expansion of Play Music, a triple-pronged service designed to hook smartphone users even more deeply into its rapidly expanding mobile ecosystem, which already includes Android, Gmail, Maps, Now, Translate and more.

First up is a free cloud storage “locker” where you can park up to 20,000 songs, to be streamed to any device you want. To populate your library, Google scans your computer or device and matches tracks to its library of 25 million. If it doesn’t find a particular song, it uploads a copy from your device and puts it into the locker. Next up is a store where you can buy and download tracks and albums, similar to the iTunes store, with each purchase also naturally added to your locker. Rounding out the offering is Google’s lynchpin, a $9.99-per-month subscription service – $7.99 if signed up for before June 30 – that serves up unlimited streaming of those millions of songs.

All of this can be accessed while sitting at a computer, but, as the company put it during a launch event in Toronto, it’s designed to be mobile-first.

Given that, Google Play Music will – like all similar streaming services – eat into consumers’ mobile data plans. At its highest throughput quality of 320 kilobits per second, the company estimates it’ll chew through about 100 megabytes per hour. With many Canadians having one gigabyte or less on their monthly plans, anyone thinking of subscribing will have to watch their usage carefully.

Google has built in a few tools to help mitigate the situation, not just for Canadians but for mobile users everywhere. Firstly, subscribers can set their mobile app to stream only over Wi-Fi. Additionally, they can also lower the stream quality down to 128 kilobits per second, in which case the total data usage is cut to about a third of the highest-quality stream.

The service also caches frequently-played tracks on the user’s device, so if they’re listening to one album over and over, it will only actually download once. “Any song you’ve played before, we keep around for a while,” said Paul Joyce, director of product management, in an interview. “It runs as first in, first out, so it can certainly hold a few albums.”

One other hiccup can occur when uploading tracks to Google’s cloud locker. With home upload speeds that are behind other developed nations, this will prove to be a chore for many Canadians. In my case, it took about four hours to upload 3,200 tracks. While it’s certainly not the end of the world, it is an inconvenience to have your Internet connection bogged down for that long, so it’s best to start the process when you’re not using it for anything else.

Having launched in the United States in 2011 and then expanded to 24 other countries first, Google’s service is arriving in Canada relatively late. “It’s complicated,” said Zahava Levine, director of content partnerships. “It took some time to hammer out agreements with the [rights] collection societies.”

Google will now have to compete in Canada against the likes of Rdio and, inevitably, Apple, which is also expected to expand its similar iTunes Radio streaming service. A spokesperson said the company had nothing to announce as of yet.

Despite the relatively fierce competition elsewhere, streaming services are coming under fire from artists, some of whom are complaining about low payouts. Stories like Cracker’s, who reaped a miserly $16.89 from Pandora despite their song “Low” being played a million times, are becoming more common.

Google, for its part, believes musicians need to give the services more time, because they are still in their relative infancies.

“Right now, the payouts are small because – even though subscriptions are growing faster than other segments of the music industry – it’s still small relative to sales. The overwhelming majority of music industry revenue today is still from sales,” Levine said in an interview.

“As subscription grows and the money from it grows with it, it will be great for artists. If we can get consumers spending in the range of $120 a year [rather than the current average of $40 to $60], that’s a net gain for artists and it’s a net gain for consumers because they can consume an infinite amount of music.”

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