Everyone is Streaming More Than Ever, But it is Not Breaking The Internet: Why The Panic?

A representative image of video streaming at home (Image: Netflix)

A representative image of video streaming at home (Image: Netflix)

Netflix explains they have removed the highest bandwidth stream for each of the streaming categories for home broadband users. But that doesn’t mean you will not get HD or Ultra HD content. Ookla data shows internet speeds are stable in India. So, why the panic?

Vishal Mathur
  • Last Updated: April 9, 2020, 6:44 PM IST
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It is a good thing that the past few years have ushered in the existence of the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Disney+, Apple TV+, Hulu, Showtime, HBO Now and more, depending on where you live. In these social distancing times when everyone is cooped up indoors with nowhere to go, these apps are a welcome source of entertainment. You can stream movies and TV shows, and not go bonkers with an overbearing sense of boredom in the process. While certain perhaps less informed people in power may have been advised that this is bad for everyone because internet connections will break and everything will collapse, that is absolutely not the case.

Let us look at the data shared by Warner Media, which looks at the HBO Now streaming platform usage globally as well as linear TV trends for TNT, TBS & TruTV. “Overall U.S. TV viewing (traditional + connected devices + smart TV) grew by nearly 20% across the industry last week compared to the prior four weeks, with increases becoming more significant throughout the week. The largest increases are coming from connected devices, and non-traditional consumption has accelerated among younger demos as streaming behavior increases,” says Cheryl Idell, Chief Research Officer, WarnerMedia Entertainment & Direct-to-Consumer.

The mental health aspect

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos brings attention to what is perhaps often overlooked in this world obsessed otherwise with numbers and data. In a chat with CNN, he said that video streaming he hopes makes people “feel a little less isolated while we are being physically isolated.” While Netflix hasn’t shared any numbers, Sarandos did say that the streaming platform, the most popular around the world, has seen a significant rise in streaming traffic.

Stop panicking!

Earlier, European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton called on citizens in European countries to limit their broadband usage during this ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. The particular reference was to video streaming, or so suggested the hashtag #SwitchToStandard. Standard in this case seems to mean Standard Definition. Needless to say, the likes of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and now Disney+ subsequently said they will limit the overall bandwidth usage on their video streaming platforms. That was just the start. Close to home, the Cellular Operators Association of India also voiced similar fears. “We believe that the streaming platforms should #cooperate with TSPs to manage traffic distribution patterns which are likely to strain #network #infrastructure at a time when it is needed for various critical requirements,” they said.

Surely, no streaming service to get into any long-drawn battles with the European Union. And if you want to want to ignore Commissioner Breton, please feel free to. His knowledge about how broadband lines work, is either suspect, or is stuck in the dial-up internet era. And same here in India too. Streaming platforms including YouTube, Netflix and Facebook have confirmed they are reducing streaming quality in India, at least on mobile.

But what does the reduction in quality mean?

Netflix explains what they have done. “Put simply the action we’ve taken maintains the full range of video resolutions. So whether you paid for Ultra-High Definition (UHD), High Definition (HD), or Standard Definition (SD), that is what you should continue to get (depending on the device you are using),” says Ken Florance, VP Content Delivery at Netflix. He says that within each of these categories, Netflix has removed the highest bandwidth stream for each of the streaming categories for home broadband users. But that doesn’t mean you will not get HD or Ultra HD content. It is normal for Netflix to have multiple quality streams for each quality bracket, and you get these depending on your internet speed and broadband line quality at that time—these are a combination of the audio and video streams, and the higher the bandwidth of each stream, the better audio and video quality available to you.

Netflix in India also has a mobile-only Standard Definition streaming plan priced at Rs 199 per month. There is also an SD plan for other devices priced at Rs 499 per month. The HD plan costs Rs 649 per month and can stream on two devices while the Ultra HD plan costs Rs 799 per month and can stream on 4 devices at the same time.

Amazon has also said it is restricting some bitrate streams for content on the Prime Video streaming platform in India. The company has also taken the welcome step of taking kids and family content from behind the subscription paywall and is now offering it to families for free. This includes titles such as Pete the Cat, Baahubali: The Lost Legends, Just Add Magic, The Stinky Dirty Show, Chhota Bheem and some nursery rhymes compilations. Amazon says that you don’t need a Prime Video subscription (otherwise Rs 999 per year) but simply need to sign in with an Amazon account on the Prime Video app to access this content.

No data to suggest slowdowns

Globally, internet service providers, or ISPs have said their networks do not face any slowdowns because of the extra volume of video streaming being done by broadband users. UK service provider BT has already clarified that while daytime traffic has increased with people working from home, the traffic is “only around half the average evening peak, and nowhere near the 17.5 Tb/s we have proved the network can handle.”

Numbers prove it too. Ookla, the makers of the very popular speedtest.net service, say that as of March 19, fixed broadband speeds in India “increased very slightly between the weeks of March 2 and March 9 while mobile download speed remained flat.” Things are stable in Japan and Malaysia as well.

On Netflix, streaming movies and TV shows could use up to 1 GB of data per hour for each stream of standard definition content, up to 3 GB per hour for HD content and that can go up to as much as 7GB per hour for Ultra HD content, assuming your internet line is perfect and you are getting the highest possible stream in each category. Factor in the device type, range of your Wi-Fi router and other internet users in your home, and that data usage may actually be lesser for each Netflix streaming session.

As for Commissioner Breton and the state of the internet in the EU and the UK, the Ookla data says “In France, mean download speed over fixed broadband was faster in the weeks of March 2 and March 9 than during any other week during this period. On the other hand mobile download speeds have remained relatively flat in France, Germany and Spain. Latency has also only shown slight fluctuations on mobile and fixed broadband. Download speed and latency on mobile and fixed broadband in the United Kingdom remained relatively flat.” Mark Jackson, editor of ISP Review, while speaking with the BBC said, “nobody should expect broadband to crash or anything like that. That's not how these things work. Some slowdown in speed during periods of truly heavy usage is possible. I'd expect this to be fairly limited, and that's true even in normal times.”

Apple has added episodes of the new show, Oprah Talks COVID-19, to the Apple TV+ platform for free access. Eros Now is also offering a two-month free subscription to its streaming content.

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