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Netflix & others cut video quality due to coronavirus

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Multiple media platforms, including Netflix and Youtube, have downgraded video streaming quality in an effort to prevent internet gridlock as UK residents spend more time online during the coronavirus pandemic. Find out what is actually being downgraded, and how this will affect you as a user.


For up-to-date information regarding the development of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, consult official sources like the World Health Organization and the UK government.

With millions of home-bound UK residents going online to work, chat or watch videos amid the coronavirus outbreak, the internet has experienced a significant rise in traffic.

Vodafone reported a 30% increase in internet usage across the UK last week. The company saw an increase of almost 50% in some other European countries.

Broadband networks are under strain at a time when they need to be operating at peak level.

In an effort to reduce the amount of data being transmitted, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has urged media platforms and users to take measures “to ensure the smooth functioning of the Internet during the battle against the virus propagation.”

He suggested that streaming companies should offer standard definition (SD) rather than high-definition (HD) resolution.

What are companies doing?

Netflix, along with Youtube and Amazon, were among the first companies to announce they would be downgrading the video quality of their content across Europe. The video streaming services have announced a temporary reduction in both video resolution and bitrate.

Facebook was soon to follow last week, as a spokesperson tweeted that “to help alleviate any potential network congestion, [the company] will temporarily reduce bitrates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe.”

The UK then welcomed the launch of Disney+ on 24 March at an overall lower bitrate than previously planned.

According to a study conducted by network equipment company Sandvine in 2019, over 60% of data passed from internet providers to consumers is for video purposes. Netflix accounts for nearly 12%.

Both Disney+ and Netflix have claimed the action taken to decrease bitrate will shrink their bandwidth usage by 25%.

How will you be affected?

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If you have noticed that your internet speed is more sluggish than normal, you’re not alone. With the increase in internet traffic from people working remotely, millions of digital consumers are experiencing slower internet broadband speeds.

To find out your broadband speed, check out our broadband speed test.

As far as video resolution and bitrate goes, let’s have a look at when these words actually mean, and how their downgrade will impact your streaming experience.

Video resolution

Video resolution refers to the number of pixels, or little dots, that make up the image. The more pixels, the better the resolution. SD generally has a resolution of 480p, while HD has a resolution of around 1080p. This means that a Standard Definition image is 480 pixels tall while a High Definition version would be 1080 pixels tall. More pixels mean more detail and, crucially at this time, more data.

While a SD video would use nearly 1 GB per hour on average, an HD video would require around 3 GB.

With the reduction of HD videos to SD, you can expect the picture to be a bit grainier and expose less detail because the size of the image has been decreased.

To understand the difference in quality, think of the image as a painting. Now imagine that painting being stretched over a wider canvas. The detail in the painting is going to appear less sharp than before. It might have a lower quality, like with SD resolution, but you’re still able to enjoy the piece of art.

Bitrate

Bitrate refers to the amount of data that is transferred at a given time. It is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). As with video resolution, the higher the bitrate, the better the image quality because more detail is being retained across the image.

A decreased bitrate might cause the flow of the video to appear a bit jumpier at extreme settings. You may also notice that shadows and darker sceens lose a bit of detail.

If SD and HD refer to image size, bit rate refers to how much detail is contained within the image. A lower bitrate is noticeable when it comes to shadow fall off and colour gradients being less smooth.

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What can I do to decrease my internet traffic during the crisis?

While we in no way expect you to limit your time teleworking or streaming videos online, there are some minor changes you could make to cut down on your data consumption during this difficult time.

  1. Set your resolution to SD instead of HD. You won’t even notice a bit of difference if you’re just listening to music on Youtube. Just select the settings icon in the bottom right hand corner of the video screen, click on Quality and then select 480p.
  2. Try not to fall asleep while streaming video content. If you often stream videos or music to go to sleep, consider setting a timer to turn off your devices.
  3. Take a break from using the internet. We know you can’t go outside, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start a new book or try to cook a new recipe.
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