Blog: HD entertainment beams and online video games may burn up the internet

What happens if the internet, because of the sudden and exponential load globally ‘burns’ up?

Mar 24, 2020 05:18:00 AM | Article | Sandeep Goyal

With the entire world literally locked down, and everyone but everyone forced to ‘work from home’, the internet has become the lifeline for survival in more ways than one … for communication, for staying connected, for work, for chats, for entertainment and more.
What happens if the internet, because of the sudden and exponential load globally ‘burns’ up? This is not a hypothetical question but a real worry. And were that to happen, the consequences would be catastrophic. 
Much of the load on the internet is not only because of the surge in simultaneous and heavy usage but because of the high definition (HD) streams of video and OTT platforms; as also the heavy load created by gaming users, especially school kids who are now home because of the Covid-19 school closures. But experts say that the HD beams are the biggest culprits and consume far more because of much higher bitrates than tele-calling or messaging or browsing or shopping or most other internet dependent activities. 
As of last week, Amazon Prime Video and You Tube have already agreed in Europe to reduce the quality of streaming on their platforms. The move followed a similar announcement from Netflix following a request from European Union commissioner Thierry Breton for streaming services to lower the resolution of their content to prevent a global internet gridlock. YouTube put out a statement saying, “We are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default”. Amazon Prime Video said the platform was working with local authorities and internet service providers “to help mitigate any network congestion”.
Online video game platforms globally have already started to see huge spikes in users in recent weeks – a trend that is expected to continue as the coronavirus crisis progresses. Desktop gaming client Steam broke its all-time record for the highest number of concurrent users over the last weekend, seeing over 20 million gamers use the platform at one time.
Closer home too, Indian telecom operators, represented by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) reached out two days ago to at least twelve major OTT video streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar and YouTube to undertake measures like switching off HD content to ease the pressure on network infrastructures. COAI asked these OTT and streaming companies to provide a suitable level of service to their customers at the most appropriate bitrate required, most important measure being temporarily moving to SD (standard definition) as default rather than the bandwidth guzzling HD (Hi Definition) streaming. Interestingly, COAI has also put out an advisory against advertisements and pop ups, which usually consume higher bandwidth, and should therefore be removed or minimised. Nothing is yet known about the government’s views or the response from the streaming giants.
India is not as heavy an online video gaming market as many others. Hence, overload despite schools being shut, on this count is relatively lower. 
So what are the other big culprits that could cause an internet meltdown? Well, videoconferencing is pretty high on the list with those working remotely needing to connect. So, advisories are already going out that hangouts and meetings should be on audio mode as far as possible. VPNs (virtual private networks) of large corporates are highly active these days as employees upload and download heavy data files from their work-desks at home. Also on the problem list are stock-trading and financial sites which are seeing heart-rending bear drops but are also burning up the internet because of heavy usage. 
But it is the fear of HD movies and series that is the most frightening in the current scenario. With binge watching at an all-time peak, that too 24x7, as everyone stays closeted indoors, is giving telecom experts sleepless nights. More importantly, no one really knows how long the pandemic closure is going to last. So, any estimates on peak loads are only hypothetical.
Can a voluntary renunciation of HD feeds help? Sure it can. So, continue to watch whatever you like or fancy, but for the common good, choose an SD option. Netflix in lower resolution will look almost as good. And the internet may get a reprieve of sorts if everyone co-operates. Think about it.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal writes on advertising, media and digital.