Tech companies are aiming to prevent internet congestion during the Covid-19 pandemic by limiting bandwidth for applications like consumer video and game downloads.
YouTube typically adjusts the quality of your video based on the speed of your connection. If you have a high-speed connection, it should by default give you a high-definition video stream. Lower-speed connections are served standard definition video. But soon, YouTube will default to streaming at standard definition. You’ll still be able to watch videos in high-def, but you’ll need to increase the resolution manually.
“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,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “Last week, we announced that we were temporarily defaulting all videos on YouTube to standard definition in the EU. Given the global nature of this crisis, we will expand that change globally starting today [Tuesday].” The change was earlier reported by Bloomberg.
Separately, network and cybersecurity company Akamai announced that it’s working with Sony and Microsoft to voluntarily throttle videogame download speeds during peak usage hours in areas facing internet congestion.
“This is very important for gaming software downloads, which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” Akamai CEO Tom Leighton wrote in a blog post. “A software update for a modern game generates an amount of traffic roughly equal to 30,000 web pages.”
The concern is that the growing number of people stuck at home watching streaming videos and playing videogames during the pandemic will overwhelm internet infrastructure and make life harder for those who need to use the internet to consult with physicians, keep in touch with vulnerable family members, work from home, or finish school assignments.
In Europe, video providers including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, are also slashing streaming quality to avoid internet congestion.
Nokia’s network analytics business Deepfield told WIRED earlier this month that it has seen internet traffic peaks at 20 percent to 40 percent higher than usual over the past four weeks in areas highly impacted by Covid-19. The bulk of that increase comes from streaming services like Netflix, with the company’s traffic increasing by 54 percent to 75 percent in some places.
Plus: What it means to “flatten the curve,” and everything else you need to know about the coronavirus.
So far, internet infrastructure has held up to increased demand. Connection speeds have declined in areas heavily affected by Covid-19, according to data collected by internet analysis company Ookla. But in some of the hardest-hit areas, average speeds were still faster this month than they were in December. That’s starting to change in places like Italy and Malaysia, where speeds continue to decline; but other places, like the Seattle metropolitan area, are holding steady. It’s also not clear whether the slower speeds are the result of overwhelmed infrastructure, or from home Wi-Fi routers struggling to meet the competing needs of entire households using the internet at the same time.
Deepfield CTO Craig Labovitz warned WIRED last week that although broadband providers have the capacity to handle traffic surges, if demand continues to grow at its current pace, networks could run out of capacity.
Reducing the bandwidth needed for streaming services might help with that. But, according to Labovitz, upload speeds may end up being a bigger concern than download speeds. Most home broadband services cap upload speeds at a much lower rate than download speeds. As more people use videoconferencing for work or video chat apps to keep in touch with friends and family, those upload caps could become more of a burden.