We are in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic, a situation most of us haven’t experienced in our lifetime. The last pandemic which caused so much hysteria and mass lockdowns of this nature happened in 1918 during the First World War — called the Spanish Flu. The coronavirus is not as lethal as the Spanish flu but its unprecedented nature means that today India is under a lockdown of 21 days which is contingent on being lifted only when the impact of the virus subsides. This has meant that most people are either working from home or not working at all giving ample time for procrastination. This has led to a massive uptake in the consumption of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Twitch and even Hotstar. People have started creating more video content as well so uploads have also increased. For instance, DJs are live-streaming their sets, fitness nuts are uploading their workout sessions, cooks are uploading videos for home cooking and journalists like me are also feeding you more and more gyan from the comfort of a home office. However, as easy and comfortable as this may seem, it isn’t. We all need to cut back on our usage of the Internet if we want to get through this quarantine in the best way possible.
• For streaming services, on paper, this may sound like a rosy situation but it isn’t. The uptake of traffic has been so high that they aren’t equipped to handle so many users. This has led to a scenario where the data centres are running hotter than usual and Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube have had to reduce the quality of streaming in markets like Europe. Globally, YouTube has already defaulted to standard definition.
• In Europe, the regulatory bodies had advised the streaming services to reduce the bandwidth of their services to maintain network integrity which is what the services did. Of course, Europe being a more developed market, most people have been consuming more data with video streams being higher resolution. In India, the COAI has also recommended the services to pull back on streaming quality and if we all go bonkers with streams this will happen.
• Even game streaming services are feeling the pinch of this lockdown as people are playing online more often. For instance, Microsoft’s Xbox Live service went down a couple of times in the last week. Mind you, it can be argued that Microsoft has the best cloud gaming infrastructure in place with its Azure servers so it can take a lot to bring these servers down.
• Similarly, Google has been facing issues with Google Docs which can make it hard for people to work from home. Microsoft has also had issues with Skype and Teams while Zoom’s explosive growth has also made the video conferencing service quite unreliable at times. At the heart of the problem is people are overusing these services. For example, DJs putting up streams of their sets on Twitch which is traditionally a streaming service for games.
• Even if one looks at the data speeds of your ISP which could be Airtel, ACT or Jio, you’ll notice total throughput is down even if your daily use isn’t showing signs of problems. The Internet service providers like ACT are being generous by doubling data speeds and increasing the fair usage policy, but understand this, it is being done so to accommodate work from home, not entertainment.
• At the heart of the issue is one reality — our infrastructure is the same while the amount of concurrent users has spiked by an order of magnitude. Getting the infrastructure to come up to speed with the demand is also not an option as most people are working from home because of the virus . It is not feasible for the companies to increase optic fibre capacity or build new data centres overnight. It wouldn’t have been possible in any situation and with the global pandemic it is next to impossible.
• We should have set hours for watching a video or uploading stuff. We should try to consume everything at 720p which is a good enough resolution but it doesn’t put a burden on the infrastructure. At the same time, we shouldn’t overdo binge watching as production of all video content has also stalled which means later in the year, newer shows or movies will likely be highly delayed and it will cause a dearth of entertainment.