No More HD: Netflix, Prime, YouTube Reduce Streaming Quality

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people live, work and interact. It has now also changed (thankfully this is just temporary) the way we stream content.

If you wondered why Suits isn’t streaming in HD or 4k on Netflix, it is not because your internet is slow, but because the European Commission (EC) requested it. On the 19th of March, the Commission requested streaming services and telecom operators to throttle their data streams.

Netflix was the first to comply, and now Amazon Prime and YouTube have also jumped on board. This means that all video content will only be available in Standard Definition (SD), at least for the next 30 days.

Throttling for a purpose

“As a result of social distancing measures put in place across Europe to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, the demand for Internet capacity has increased, be it for teleworking, e-learning or entertainment purposes. This could put networks under strain at a moment when they need to be operational at the best possible level” the EC said in a statement.

The call from Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, will help ensure that mobile networks are still able to function at their optimum level.

As more and more people work from home, and children are kept away from school, streaming services are turning into the number one source of entertainment.

The more people turn to services like Netflix, the more the strain on the global internet system. This is because HD video takes up more data than other content on the internet.

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One minute of HD video at 720p can consume around 20-45MB of data, which equates to 1.2-2.7GB per hour. Now imagine a few hundred thousand people streaming videos at that rate at the same time.

If streaming services take up all the internet bandwidth, critical services that rely on the internet can often be slowed down or blocked.

Many first responders and government departments are turning to digital tools and platforms to help combat the virus. Without the internet, their job becomes extremely difficult.

The NHS for example, is rolling out free access to Microsoft Teams to its employees, and all NHSmail users. Organisations that do not use NHSmail can also take advantage of free access to Teams, by applying to Microsoft.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, is also offering European healthcare systems access to its cloud-based diagnostic tool. It has already presented its machine learning- based software to hospitals in France and Italy.

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Internet bandwidth is also essential for the millions of students who are engaged in e-learning, as universities and schools begin shutting down.

Right now, the BBC is also debating whether to introduce data throttling measures. BBC’s iPlayer is the largest streaming service in the UK, with 11.5m users daily as per their performance report.

Disney+, which launches in Western Europe on March 24 is also debating whether to introduce such a measure. In contrast, BritBox, the joint venture between ITV and the BBC said it will not introduce any such measures.

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“We have not reduced or restricted our highest-quality streams on BritBox, which are full high-definition, but will keep the situation under review including any official guidance or feedback from partners and suppliers,” a spokeswoman told The Guardian.

Jump in internet calls

Social distancing and self-quarantine has also led to a jump in the number of Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP) calls being made, through services like FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp.

In a conference call on the 18th of March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that volume of calls made of WhatsApp and Messenger doubled in nations struck by COVID-19. The company responded by doubling the server capacity of WhatsApp, and is working on beefing its infrastructure overall.

Zuckerberg added that the volume was well beyond the spike seen on new years, and that demand remains sustained. Just like other companies, Facebook has instituted a work from home policy that began on the 19th of March.

Employees who have to fulfil critical roles, like maintaining the server would still come to the office though. Zuckerberg compared these employees to first responders.

Effect of data throttling

In a statement to The Register, a Netflix spokesperson said: “We estimate that this (data throttling) will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

The move is just a precautionary measure. EU network operators have acknowledged that there is a spike in data demand, but not enough to cause a wide slowdown or shutdown.

Even so, the EC is working with the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) to set up a system. It will monitor data usage across the EU, and warn operators when capacities are too high for the system to handle.

In a joint statement, telecom operators in Spain called on customers to responsibly use the internet. They asked that users turn to streaming services during off-peak hours, so as to not overload the system when it is most needed.

The move is also being copied in Australia, where communications minister Paul Fletcher has asked streaming services to reduce streaming quality. This comes after a roundtable meeting with telecom operators on the 16th of March.

Netflix has become a major usage of the world’s internet bandwidth. According to the 2019 Global Internet Phenomena Report from Sandvine, Netflix accounted for 12.6% of overall internet traffic. Media streaming as a whole, accounted for 12.8% of downstream internet traffic.

By limited the amount of data streaming services consume, telecom operators can ensure that more people can simultaneously access internet services without facing throttling or slowdowns.

Data caps removed

On March 12, a group of 17 US Senators called on internet service providers (ISPs) to suspend data caps to help people working from home.

AT&T, one of the largest ISPs in the US responded by suspending data caps for all its AT&T home internet customers. Currently, customers have a cap on the amount of data they consume, ranging from 150GB to 1TB.

Exceeding the cap can incur a fee as high as $10 per 50GB. As more and more people remain confined to working from home, these limits can be easily exceeded.

The Senators also called on ISPs to work with public schools, colleges and universities to provide free or at-cost internet for students who do not have broadband access at home.

In Europe, data caps aren’t a usual part of broadband packages. The EU has, however, issued a warning to ISPs, asking them to avoid throttling other services or websites.

Any attempt to block, slow down or prioritise traffic would be a violation of the net neutrality laws of the bloc, the body said.


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