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Streaming services are reacting to us all working at home


While we’re all working from home, we’re also drawing a lot more on our broadband capacity. Whether it’s replacing face-to-face meetings with video calls, or transferring vital work over the internet, we’re increasingly drawing on our home internet connections to keep us informed while we work from home.

And with more time spent out of the office, and a need to escape the harsh realities of a pandemic stretching across the world at a frighteningly fast pace, we’re also relying a little more on key services to keep us entertained.

In the last few days, both Netflix and YouTube have announced they’re throttling the quality of their video, in response to a plea by EU industry head Thierry Breton, who worried the increased bandwidth demands could slow down the internet to a crawl.

Video’s draw on bandwidth

Video streaming accounts for around 60% of downstream internet traffic in ordinary times, according to Sandvine – and this isn’t ordinary times. The much-heralded cord cutters, who have pulled the cable TV connections out of their walls in favour of getting their news and entertainment from the internet, are suddenly wanting to tune in to learn what’s happening in the world.

And we all need escapism in these trying times. The imminent arrival of Disney+ in the UK is likely to stretch streaming services even further – and that’s before accounting for the increase in online gaming going on, which is responsible for a further 8% of downstream traffic.

According to research by Nielsen, staying at home could lead to up to a 60% increase in the amount of content we consume – and as a result, the amount of internet traffic we’re drawing upon.

When you look globally, Netflix and YouTube alone account for more than a fifth of internet traffic. Making small changes to their systems could free up huge amounts of bandwidth that can be better served on getting vital information out, even if it means a small hit to video quality purists.

Pulling together for the greater good

For the overwhelming majority of people, the differences between standard definition video streaming and high definition video streaming is negligible. But the draw on bandwidth is enormous. A normal standard definition movie accounts for 1.4GB of data usage, while a high definition movie will draw down 6GB of data.

Those figures are backed up by a statement Netflix provided to The Verge, saying that “We estimate that [throttling quality] will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

When multiplied by the millions of people who are now working from home across Europe and require entertaining – not least at peak hours – it becomes obvious why the politicians have asked the streaming services to pull back their quality.

However, there are some questions about whether it will make all that much difference. Netflix serves content to many internet service providers (ISPs) across the world using open connect appliances, which are away from the mainstream internet. “Pre-positioning content in this way allows us to avoid any significant utilization of internet ‘backbone’ capacity,” Netflix explained in a blog post.

And BT, a UK ISP, reassured customers that weekday daytime traffic across its network has increased between 35 and 60%, peaking at 7.5Tb/s – half the average evening peak it sees.

Still, the tech firms appear to want to ensure that they can’t be held responsible for the internet falling over as more and more of us socially distance, self-isolate, or quarantine in reaction to the coronavirus.

“We are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default,” YouTube said in a statement to Reuters. 

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