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COVID-19 impact: Streaming services to dial down quality as internet speeds fall

Coronavirus impact on the internet: As internet speeds slow down world over, streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, Hotstar and others have announced they will reduce the burden on the networks by reducing video quality

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi |
Updated: March 27, 2020 8:49:12 am
Coronavirus, COVID-19 streaming service, YouTube video quality, Hotstar video quality, Netflix streaming, Netflix reduces streaming, Coronavirus internet speeds As more and more people rely on work from home or are under a lockdown, there is increase burden on internet networks. Here’s why streaming services are reducing video quality to tackle this. (Image source: Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic is breaking the internet, in every sense of the word. Trends observed by Ookla, known for its SpeedTest app and website, show that across the world fixed broadband and mobile broadband networks are seeing a decline in their speeds, ranging from 10 per cent to 20 per cent in some cases. The reason: more and more people are now in lockdown, working from home, and with children staying back as well, there is increased burden on networks.

One major factor for this is video, according to Doug Suttles, Co-founder and General Manager at Ookla. “Over half of the internet uses video. Anything else is small in comparison. The issue is that everyone’s working from home and suddenly kids don’t have school and they are home too. There’s a whole lot more video consumption. It’s gotten a lot larger,” Suttles explains, adding that ISPs cannot add capacity overnight to their networks.

To give some context, JustWatch, an international streaming guide, has seen a 60 per cent spike in traffic from India and 81 per cent from US. So world over streaming services are now working to reduce the load. In India too, most major streaming players have followed suit and announced measures.

Coronavirus, COVID-19 streaming service, YouTube video quality, Hotstar video quality, Netflix streaming, Netflix reduces streaming, Coronavirus internet speeds JustWatch has seen a jump in traffic as more users search for what to what on streaming services. Source:

YouTube, for which India is the biggest market in terms of consumers, confirmed Tuesday it was reducing its default video quality to standard definition across the world. In India, YouTube streaming will be at 480p on mobile networks by default until April 14, which is when the official lockdown declared by the government is supposed to end.

“We continue to work closely with governments and network operators around the globe to do our part to minimise stress on the system during this unprecedented situation. Last week, we announced that we were temporarily defaulting all videos on YouTube to standard definition in the EU. Given the global nature of this crisis, we will expand that change globally starting today,” a Google spokesperson says on this change.

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Other players in India like Sony, Facebook, Amazon Prime Video, Viacom18, Zee, Hotstar, TikTok and MX Player have also agreed to stream at SD or standard definition content, in order to ensure there is no strain on the networks, which will consume less data.

In a collective decision, the companies have announced they will temporarily be defaulting HD and ultra-HD streaming to SD content or offering only SD content at bitrates no higher than 480p on cellular networks. The measures will stay in effect till April 14.

Coronavirus, COVID-19 streaming service, YouTube video quality, Hotstar video quality, Netflix streaming, Netflix reduces streaming, Coronavirus internet speeds With more users staying home and streaming content online, there is an increased burden on the networks. (Image source: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Netflix has decided to reduce load on the telecommunications networks in India by 25 per cent, while maintaining the quality of service for the next 30 days. “Given the crisis, we’ve developed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on telecommunications networks by 25% while also maintaining the quality of our service. So consumers should continue to get the quality that comes with their plan – whether it’s Ultra-High, High or Standard Definition,” says Ken Florance, VP Content Delivery, Netflix in a statement.

Work from Home appears to be the norm for many of us. We at Indian Express tech have some articles which could help make this easier. First, how to optimise your WiFi, which is really important. Read on that here. Next, we explain how to save data on WhatsApp given we might be using a lot more of this. Then we explain how you can balance screen time while doing work from home. Also these video calling apps can be useful when relying on work from home. Don’t let it be all about work, you can rely on these fitness apps to continue that workout during the lockdown. And finally some general tips to keep in mind while working from home.

So if a customer wants to continue streaming at a higher resolution, and their plan allows the option, the content will be available at that UHD or HD or SD resolution, except the streaming will be at a lower bitrate. The company has removed the highest bandwidth streams in order to reduce load on the networks.

India speed trends

While on-demand video streaming platforms are working to reduce the load on networks, there’s no doubt that the increased demand has impacted speeds in India already. The good news is that Ookla’s numbers showed that while fixed or wired broadband has declined at some level in India, it is not so sharp.

But mobile broadband has seen a steeper decline of about 10 per cent across networks. The data shows that in India there is also a 5 per cent decline in upload speeds for mobile and fixed broadband as well.

Coronavirus, COVID-19 streaming service, YouTube video quality, Hotstar video quality, Netflix streaming, Netflix reduces streaming, Coronavirus internet speeds Mobile broadband speeds in Asian countries. (Image source: Ookla)

“The trends are similar in India to what we are seeing over the world. Week-over-week, there’s a clear uptick in testing. People are concerned with their network, having issues and wanting to solve those problems. In India, we are seeing about a 10 per cent decline in performance for mobile broadband networks, though the fixed broadband networks have not seen such a sharp decline,” Suttles says.

The decline in mobile networks is not surprising if one looks at the numbers put out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the number of subscribers for mobile vs fixed broadband. Wired broadband connections stood at 19.13 million subscribers as seen on December 31, 2019. In contrast, the number of mobile broadband subscribers stands at 642 million. For many mobile is the primary and only form of internet connectivity and in these congested times, the networks will face an increased burden.

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The overall trend

In countries where work from home has been mandated, and is being followed, there is a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in performance. “What’s different in some countries is that it has affected mobile broadband more. India is an example of that. In the United States, it has impacted fixed broadband but mobile speeds have stayed the same,” explains Suttles.

Another trend that Ookla has observed is that there is a general uptick in the number of people running speed tests to check on internet quality. “It’s interesting because usually it happens more often in the evening for fixed broadband when people come home from work. People are testing throughout the day and night now. More mobile tests used to happen typically during the day, but now we are seeing all kinds of tests throughout the day,” he adds.

Content Delivery Networks

It is not just video streaming services that are working to optimise their services. Content Delivery Networks (CDN’s) such as Akamai are also working to reduce traffic congestion.

Akamai announced it will work with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. Gaming software downloads account for large amounts of internet traffic and it will be crucial to manage this, especially as more people are staying home.

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“Akamai’s intelligent edge network architecture is inherently designed to mitigate and minimise network congestion, and because we have deployed our infrastructure deep into carrier networks, we can help those networks avoid overload by diverting traffic away from areas experiencing high levels of congestion,” a statement quotes Dr Tom Leighton, the CEO and Co-Founder of Akamai.

In regions where demand is creating bottlenecks for customers, Akamai will be reducing gaming software downloads at peak times, and completing the downloads at the normal fast speeds late at night. The approach, it says, will ensure that while gamers can still get their downloads, health workers will not face any issues with the digital services that are vital.

Coronavirus, COVID-19 streaming service, YouTube video quality, Hotstar video quality, Netflix streaming, Netflix reduces streaming, Coronavirus internet speeds Graph showing increase in VPN usage across Asia Pacific, including India. (Image source: Express VPN)

A lot more VPN

Another consequence of the lockdowns is more usage of VPN or Virtual Private Networks, which can help users access websites or content which might not be allowed in their country. According to ExpressVPN, it has seen an increase of 21 per cent in the average global usage of its service since the end of February. In India, there’s been a growth of 15 per cent in VPN usage.

“We are seeing strong demand in our services as more people spend more time indoors and employees around the world telework,” says a statement from Harold Li, vice president, ExpressVPN.

And what happened in China

But how long will the strain on the networks continue? The Ookla co-founder gives the example of China and how the situation played out there, where the coronavirus outbreak began and was followed by a lockdown in Wuhan.

“Six weeks ago, China looked like the other parts of the world do now, where everyone shifted to working from home. There were a lot of slowdowns on the internet. It took five to six weeks for things to return to normal there. But as of the last two weeks, it looks like it used to before,” he points out.

In his view, if the lockdowns and social distancing measures are adhered to, and everyone does stay home, it would take a month or so for internet speeds to get back to normal, though he cautions, it will depend on the number of people actually staying at home.

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