As millions of Americans hunker down to slow the spread of COVID-19, gaming, teleconferencing, and video streaming are putting added stress on the internet. And while telecom executives tell Motherboard the U.S. internet will likely weather the storm, many content providers are taking extra precautions to make sure that’s true.
Responding to demands from European regulators, Netflix late last week announced that it would be slowing down customer bit rates to reduce overall network traffic by 25 percent to help avoid any potential congestion. The company already offers tools to help users on slow or capped broadband connections reducing their overall bandwidth use. "We immediately developed, tested and deployed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on these networks by 25%—starting with Italy and Spain, which were experiencing the biggest impact,” Netflix said. “Within 48 hours, we’d hit that goal and we’re now deploying this across the rest of Europe and the UK.” The company said most users wouldn’t notice a reduction in quality. Disney announced in a blog post that it would also be “instituting measures to lower our overall bandwidth utilisation by at least 25%” across Europe. A company representative told Motherboard the company had no such plan for the United States at this time. In a blog post, content delivery network (CDN) Akamai said the company was working with both Sony and Microsoft to slow game downloads during peak usage hours to help manage any additional demand. The slowdowns will only impact game downloads and will only appear in areas dealing with significant overall congestion. "In regions where demand is creating bottlenecks for customers, we will be reducing gaming software downloads at peak times, completing the downloads at the normal fast speeds late at night," Akamai CEO Tom Leighton said.
When asked to comment, Microsoft would only direct Motherboard to an existing blog post by Xbox boss Phil Spencer that doesn’t really address the congestion issue. Sony did not respond to a request for comment. U.S. telecom provider Centurylink, which acquired tier 1 network operator Level 3 in 2017, told Motherboard it has seen a 35 percent overall increase in network traffic over the past two weeks, primarily in the areas of gaming and video.
“We are keeping up with these new demands and adjusting when needed by moving network traffic to less congested routes and adding capacity to our network backbone,” the company said. “We’re also working closely with service-providing customers to ensure their bandwidth-intensive applications and platforms keep up with the increased workload and they can continue to provide critical services to those working and learning from home.”
Google told Bloomberg on Tuesday that YouTube would be taking steps around the world to limit bandwidth consumption. Starting this week, users will be shown videos in standard definition by default—though they’ll still have the option to view them in HD or 4K if interested.
“We continue to work closely with governments and network operators around the globe to do our part to minimize stress on the system during this unprecedented situation,” Google told Bloomberg. A recent study by network monitoring firm Sandvine showed that Google services consume the most bandwidth on the global internet, followed by Netflix. Both companies have invested billions in network transit routes and their own content delivery networks.
A recent Sandvine update indicated that Youtube traffic has nearly doubled that of Netflix during the pandemic. “In many cases, YouTube is not just greater than Netflix, it is 2x the volume of Netflix, which is a massive statement of dominance,” the firm said.
In a blog post, Facebook also said it would also be taking additional steps to ensure the stability and reliability of its platform during the crisis. “The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day,” the company said. “We’re monitoring usage patterns carefully, making our systems more efficient, and adding capacity as required.”
Several major ISPs told Motherboard that the added network load shouldn’t be anything they can’t handle. That message was reiterated by FCC advisor Evan Swarztrauber on a media conference call this week, when he indicated ISPs have told the agency the traffic from COVID-19 has yet to even match the load seen during the Superbowl.
For most U.S. users, experts say connectivity problems on the internet itself should be minimal. The biggest problems for many will come on the “last mile” due to slow home broadband speeds. Of particular note could be the slow upstream speeds on aging DSL lines that have been long neglected by U.S. telecom monopolies despite billions in taxpayer subsidies. Another issue, U.S. broadband caps and overage fees, were largely eliminated earlier this month when the biggest U.S. ISPs announced they’d be suspending such restrictions after criticism from experts and consumer advocates—who argued the limitations were more about nickel and diming captive customers than actually managing network congestion.