Coronavirus, or COVID-19, may have given you something totally unexpected. You probably never imagined someone would urge you to stay home, work from home, not travel anywhere and watch TV to keep yourself entertained. Lots of TV, mind you, the longer this social distancing thing keeps happening. But it turns out, those who are social distancing themselves in these tough times will not have the pleasure of watching their favorite Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube or Disney+ content in 4K or perhaps even HD quality. The idea, those championing its cause, claim it helps save on internet bandwidth. That is, at least in Europe. It is not how the internet works. ISPs in India, please do not get any unnecessary ideas. But it is really hard to wrap my head around what this actually means, and why.
This inexplicable move started a while ago when the 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+ have said they will limit the overall bandwidth usage on their video streaming platforms, at least in the EU. Surely, they don’t want 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.
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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.”
“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,” said Mark Jackson, editor of ISP Review, while speaking with the BBC. Exactly.
Openreach, which manages a lot of UK’s broadband infrastructure has also said that the existing networks are ready to handle peak demand. They cite the example of the Premier League derby match between Liverpool and Everton which was streamed on Amazon Prime Video in December which registered multiple peaks in web traffic, but the networks experienced no slowdowns whatsoever.
“As more people may be working from home at the moment, it’s important to know our network can withstand any increased usage, including peaks throughout the day, in the evenings and at weekends. As usage rises, our existing capacity will be able to take it – but we’ll have a close eye on things and make changes if we need to,” says Virgin Media.
Let us take a look at the cold, hard numbers.
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.
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.”
In the US, ISPs are saying they also have enough internet bandwidth to play with. “So far we have seen some shifts in usage patterns toward more daytime usage in areas that have moved to a work-from-home environment, but the overall peaks are still well within our network capability,” says Comcast in a statement shared with the media. The fixed broadband data for US, Canada and Mexico also suggests work from home and Netflix in 4K hasn’t slowed anything down.
Before Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Disney+ get any ideas in India, it is important to remember that ISPs, or internet service providers, always have a lot of headroom on their network. They already have factored in high volume of 4K streaming, Live sports streaming and a variety of other internet usage including online gaming, video chatting and more. Secondly, what I fail to understand (or hasn’t been explained properly thus far by the EU) is how does the whole people working from home thing really increase the network load that much? The same number of people would otherwise be working from an office or remotely, as they are now working from home. The network load, in terms of the number of users, would remain largely the same—across ISPs. If it didn’t crash then, it wouldn’t struggle now either, one would assume. We are purely talking about home broadband here, and not mobile networks, which may see more network congestion in residential areas.
Then there is the whole matter of the volume. India has 21.49 million wired broadband users in India, according to TRAI numbers as of January. That is less than the UK, which is more than 26 million, France which is at around 29 million, Germany which has more than 33 million and the US which has more than 110 million wired broadband users.
One request to ISPs in India—please do listen to Commissioner Breton and start thinking about restricting bandwidth for any traffic on your network. We don’t know what data he has seen, because all other data suggests he is completely wrong. And a simple request to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hotstar (in our case, instead of Disney+) and the rest—do not take away our 4K and high definition video streaming. That’s our only solace in this social distancing experiment. We are not running out of the internet. Calm down.