Lessons Learned from Internet Use During COVID-19
For several months in early 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world was under some form of lockdown, and many still are. With millions of people working and studying from home, internet use skyrocketed by an estimated to 60% overall.
Video conferencing increased to support remote workers, children and university students learning from home, and friends and family trying to stay in touch. Even religious services turned to live streaming to connect their congregations. At the same time, video streaming, online gaming, and esports increased as people in lockdown tried to keep themselves entertained without being able to leave their homes.
Internet providers around the world saw unprecedented usage. Verizon’s streaming video jumped 37% in April in the US. WebEx traffic increased by up to 80% in parts of Europe in March, and weekly video minutes on mobile across Southeast Asia rose by 60% in April, to give just a few of the astonishing statistics.
The rise in COVID-19-related internet use affected QoE
Unsurprisingly, this sudden leap in demand stressed an already busy infrastructure to the max. The system did not break, but there was fallout. In particular, QoE for streaming media consumers was seriously impacted.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, pointed out that “Video is already 70% of all network traffic. The moment you add in videoconferencing to all the shows the kids are watching because schools are closed, it could be a problem if everyone is trying to get on at the same time.”
This is exactly what happened. As lockdowns progressed around the world, internet speed dropped. China, the first to implement lockdown, saw a drop in average internet speeds in late January. By mid-February, internet speeds began to fall in Italy, Germany, and Spain. From mid-March, restrictions were imposed and download time rose progressively across the US. Median download speeds dropped 38% in California and 24% in New York City. Video users of all types saw a perceptible impact on the speed and quality of their media.
Media providers struggled to respond
As pressure on internet infrastructure increased, broadband providers rose to the occasion by lifting data caps, expanding individual bandwidth, and preparing to enlarge capacity as necessary.
Officials were less confident that the internet could cope with levels of streaming traffic. EU commissioner Thierry Breton, who is responsible for the EU internal market covering more than 450 million people, spoke to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about the strain that video streaming was placing on networks due to the way that Netflix’ protocols hog too much bandwidth. The EBU (European Broadcasting Union) issued an official recommendation to public service media organizations to temporarily cap bitrates on streaming media.
It was the media providers who really felt the heat. Both Netflix and YouTube reduced their streaming quality in Europe, and Netflix made the same decision in India, Australia, and Latin America as well. Apple cut streaming bitrates for AppleTV+ in Europe; Amazon slashed bitrates for Prime Video in India and Europe; and Facebook acknowledged the strain of Facebook Live streaming and video calls over WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Even Microsoft Xbox requested that gaming companies introduce updates and new releases off-peak, because updates use a lot of bandwidth.
Only correcting last mile delivery can improve QoE
As the peak of the pandemic passes and lock-down orders are eased, the challenges of last mile delivery won’t disappear. Consumer habits have changed for the long term - an increasing number of people will continue to work from home, even part of the time, many will opt to watch movies at home rather than go to the cinema, these changes are here to stay, and it affects the internet infrastructure. The different responses of internet providers and streaming media providers highlights the fact that the problem doesn’t lie in the amount of bandwidth or spike in traffic, but rather in last mile congestion and transport protocols that can hold up content delivery and prevent media providers from sharing network resources efficiently and fairly.
Shared networks continue to create fierce competition for internet bandwidth even at the best of times. Networks, particularly mobile internet networks, are unstable and volatile, with bandwidth changing frequently and latency high. The sheer weight of internet traffic slows it down, leaving last mile delivery conditions in a constant state of flux.
Current Internet transport protocols cannot keep up with the rapidly flickering microseconds of high congestion, with the result that they’re unable to efficiently utilize available bandwidth. It’s crucial to create a fair environment that doesn’t result in one person in the neighborhood enjoying HD streaming while the rest are stuck on uncertain SD. Bandwidth needs to be allocated in such a way that everyone can access their fair share of network resources. At Compira Labs, we are focused on helping providers to resolve these challenges.
COVID-19 revealed the urgent need for improved quality of experience
COVID-19 brought us very close to the brink of efficacy of last-mile delivery. The weight of video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and other internet usage threatened to break QoE and left media providers scrambling to chase fires and keep their content flowing smoothly. The only solution is to address last mile delivery with a competent solution for congestion control and quality of experience, and Compira Labs’ is here to help.