Do Netflix And YouTube Really Need To Slash Video Quality To Save The Internet? – Forbes

Netflix is knocking back streaming quality, at the request of the EU

The EU has persuaded both Netflix and YouTube to drop the quality of their video streams during the coronavirus crisis, in a bid to avoid internet meltdown. The question on many viewers lips will be: is that really necessary?

On the face of it, the internet appears to be holding up very well to the huge surge in people working from home and children being sent home from schools. As reported yesterday, the biggest spike in internet traffic over the past week wasnt caused by the virus, but by the release of Call of Duty: Warzone.

Britains biggest broadband network, BT, today issued further reassurance about the internets ability to withstand the crisis. Since Tuesday of this week, when the British government began advising people to work from home in the UK, daytime traffic has increased by a maximum of 60%, which is still less than half the regular evening-time peak. The additional load on the broadband network is well within manageable limits and we have plenty of headroom for it to grow further still, said Howard Watson, BTs Chief Technology and Information Officer.

The British story seems to be echoed right across Europe, even in countries that have much more extensive lockdowns than is currently the case in Britain.

The graph below shows the past months internet interchange traffic in Madrid, Spain (reproduced with permission of internet security expert, Kevin Beaumont):

Internet traffic levels in Madrid over the past month

While this graph shows the same period in Milan, Italy, the region that has been hit hardest in the entire continent:

Internet traffic levels in Milan over the past month

While traffic peaks have undoubtedly risen over the past week or so, they are not anywhere near levels that threaten to overwhelm the network or significantly harm the internet experience of most users.

So why has the EU leaned on Netflix and YouTube to dial down the video quality? And what will it mean for viewers?

Theres no doubt Netflix and YouTube put huge demand on broadband providers. Netflix is the single biggest video streaming service on the planet, accounting for 12.6% of all internet traffic (not just streaming traffic) in 2019, according to Sandvines Global Internet Phenomenon Report. YouTube is close behind on 8.7%. Between them, then, they account for a fifth of all traffic that passes over the internet.

Netflixs highest quality streams are also bandwidth hogs. The companys own guidelines recommend a minimum connection speed of 25Mbits/sec if you wish to watch its highest quality, Ultra HD streams. The next step down, HD Quality, requires only a fifth of that bandwidth.

Netflix has not revealed precisely how it will lower the quality of its video streams, suffice to say it will reduce overall bandwidth consumption by around 25%. Its reported the company will do this not by switching off the Ultra HD 4K streams, but by reducing the bitrate, which will make the video a little less smooth than it would normally be.

YouTube, on the other hand, will change its default video playback quality to standard by default, instead of playing at the highest quality the users connection or device will support. The option will still be there to boost the quality if viewers desire.

Is the EU being overly cautious in pressuring the streaming firms to cut back? Perhaps, but if theres one thing weve learned from the coronavirus crisis so far, its things can change rapidly. Moreover, most viewers are unlikely to spot the drop in streaming quality, with the majority watching on small-screen mobile devices where a fall in resolution or bitrate is harder to detect.

Even if you do notice a slight drop in video quality whilst youre watching Stranger Things, does it even register on the scale of problems the world is facing currently? Its not even a blip on the radar.

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Do Netflix And YouTube Really Need To Slash Video Quality To Save The Internet? - Forbes

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