Mark Fisher

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Now That the Capacity Gap is Here – How Much Did Streaming Increase? A Look at the Numbers

On March 19th, we wrote about the news of an EU commissioner who asked Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to dial down streaming quality and “secure Internet access for all” in Europe. Netflix did downgrade their streams, at least for a while. It did not take long for other streaming giants – Amazon, YouTube – to be asked to do the same thing. Incredibly, the French government asked Disney Streaming to delay its long-planned launch in France for the same reason.

We all understand this “100-year flood” of streaming was brought on by the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus, leading to countries around the world issuing stay-at-home orders to their citizens. So, it’s not surprising that network capacity planners at major Internet service providers (ISPs) worldwide were caught off guard, and their networks, in many cases, were unprepared to handle the surge in traffic. At the same time, we strongly believe these unforeseen circumstances – however temporary – give us all a chance to “see over the horizon” at what the future of streaming might look like if we don’t think differently about how content delivery capacity is created for streaming video. As we said in the last blog, we have deep convictions that a new architecture and business model are necessary for streaming to flourish. Without this new approach, there will be an ongoing capacity gap in which limited capacity at peering/exchanges points and across the ISP core result in choke points. The outcome of the capacity gap is network congestion and degraded streaming quality for consumers which will greatly hinder OTT services growth for all of us.

Now let’s be clear. The Internet is not melting down. Millions of streaming consumers are not complaining they can’t binge. The observations we are making may seem extreme, but they are relevant for an important audience – the network planners at major service providers and the operators of major streaming services – who understand what’s at stake here. It takes time, measured in months and sometimes years, to plan, procure equipment and then deploy additional infrastructure needed to expand the end to end capacity of a massive service provider network. If sudden and unexpected surges in demand happen, the service provider may have headroom to handle the surge or they may find themselves calling an EU Commissioner for help. In the midst of the current streaming surge, Telefonica CTO Enrique Blanco remarked: “In just two days we grew all the traffic we planned for 2020.” So, this is a serious time indeed.

The good news is that there is an architectural solution called Open Caching created by the Streaming Video Alliance; and based on this solution, Qwilt has developed a new business model called Content Delivery Sharing that we offer in partnership with many service providers around the globe.

The Steaming Surge

To help you understand just how much streaming has increased during this pandemic, so you can more fully appreciate this opportunity to “see over the horizon” and what a future without Open Caching might look like, we will take a closer look at both Europe and the US and report more quantitatively. We hope these actual experiences of various ISPs will help ground our discussion, along with our own aggregated analytics from each region. So, let’s start with Europe and then move to the US. We will report on other regions in the world as times goes on.

In addition to sharing some of our own data and observations, I have tried to highlight other resources that provide independent network traffic growth data. In response to COVID-19, the traffic growth around the world has been significant enough to prompt many different service providers and organizations to collect and distribute their own analysis and insights. This effort is commendable as the more we share openly, the more we will learn collectively, and those learnings will guide decisions going forward.

It’s important to note that the overall streaming traffic increases reported here include the 25% reduction in ABR profiles due to major OTT service providers voluntarily degrading their streams across the board from HD to SD. This reduction in ABR profiles may have reduced actual bandwidth utilization or capacity by 40% in service provider networks. So, to understand the full impact of this streaming surge, imagine the streaming charts with 40% higher usage values.

Europe – Streaming Increases During the Pandemic

Qwilt’s report of total Internet traffic in Italy (graph below) shows the dramatic increase in Internet consumption during March as Italians were ordered to stay at home. You can easily see the substantial increase in traffic during the second and third weeks of March. Incredibly, March 10th was also the same day Activision released Call of Duty: Warzone for download and promoted the new title as “free to play.” Gamespot reported that the size of the download is a staggering 83GB to 101GB! This created a perfect storm on March 10th. The spike in traffic that day in the graph is striking.

Italy – Streaming Increases During the Pandemic

Italy – Total Estimated Internet Traffic (Tbps)
March 2020
Source: Qwilt Analytics

In Spain, ISPs took the extraordinary step of creating a joint announcement to encourage their subscribers to use the Internet more judiciously due to the COVID-19 “traffic explosion.” These Spanish ISPs were responding to traffic growth through IP networks in Spain which had increased almost 40% due to lockdown orders.

Incredibly, Telefonica, Orange, Vodafone, Masmovil and Euskaltel asked their subscribers to participate directly in efforts to deal with the capacity gap by shifting video streaming to off-peak hours to leave capacity for virtual learning and telecommuting applications. Off-peak hours were defined as between 2pm and 4pm and from 8pm to 8am according to the joint announcement.

In the UK, the CTO of British Telecom reported, via BT’s website, that daytime usage during working hours generally runs at about 5 Tbp/s. However, since the order for most citizens to work at home, BT has seen weekday traffic increase 35-60% compared with similar days on the fixed network, peaking at 7.5Tb/s. Despite the weekday high, BT’s broadband fixed network has seen an even higher peak of 17.5Tbp/s during some evenings prior to the pandemic, which is driven by video game updates and streaming football. With the current lockdown, these live football games are no longer being played in the UK. In any case, the pandemic related traffic increases are being closely monitored by BT and may drive higher capacity requirements in their network over time.

Telia, a Scandinavian-based service provider with operations in nine countries across Europe, posted recently on their blog about how to better understand network trends and modeling during the pandemic. They have posted data showing hourly peaks over a 24-hour period on Monday, March 23rd and compared that profile to the average Monday in February. The comparison shows both an overall increase in peak traffic, as well as a shift of traffic usage earlier in the day, including off peak hours. This data again confirms our own view of the changes in the region.

North America – Streaming Increases During the Pandemic

Qwilt’s summary of total US Internet traffic (graph below) shows the steady increase in traffic which has resulted in a new higher average daily peak traffic level in the final weeks of March and going forward. The usage throughout the day and average off-peak trough increases also suggest there is more use at almost all hours of the day when compared to the pre-lockdown numbers.

US – Streaming Increases During the Pandemic

US – Total Estimated Internet Traffic (Tbps)
March 7th through March 28th, 2020
Source: Qwilt Analytics

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association – has established a COVIDdashboard which allows you to see a collection of reported metrics, including Peak Traffic Growth, National Downstream Peak Growth and National Upstream Peak Growth, which come from aggregated data provided by member companies, including: Charter, Comcast, Cox, GCI and Midco. Other ISPs will be added. Metrics can be displayed at the national level or on a state by state basis. At the time of this blog post, NCTA reports downstream growth is up 20.1% since March 1st and upstream growth is up 27.7% since March 1st. The later metric would certainly point to more work at home users following the lockdown across most of the country. Below is an example of the report. These metrics reflect the data from most of the approximately 72 million US homes which subscribe to cable broadband services.

I called up the report for California, where I am locked down at home for now, and saw that downstream growth is 24.6% and upstream growth is 35.6%. Both metrics are significantly higher growth than the national average.

NCTA COVIDdashboard

NCTA COVID dashboard – April 1, 2020

Independent of this aggregated reporting through NCTA, Comcast announced peak traffic across their network has surged 32%, and in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco where the lockdown is in full effect, peak traffic increases are as high as 60%.

Flaws Exposed

The numbers are quite clear. As a result of the pandemic and government lockdowns, people are at home streaming more at all hours of the day. This surge in streaming and the related ISP network congestion concerns have exposed the flaws in our current streaming model in which commercial CDNs push their streams through limited exchange and peering points into ISP networks and, in turn, ISPs are forced to haul redundant streams across their entire network, from core to access, to waiting consumers and their screens. The outcomes, as you’ve read, are quite problematic – for critical services to remain active, governments and regulators are pleading with OTT providers to degrade stream quality so everything can get through. This inefficient architecture can impact the quality of all other traffic on the service provider network such as remote access for workers at home. We don’t need to wonder if this could be a problem anymore. The COVID pandemic has proven it is a problem. The capacity gap is here.

A Better Way to Address Today’s Problem and the New Normal

There is a better way – a better architecture and business model – that takes streaming to the edge and unleashes a ton of capacity. Open Caching and Content Delivery Sharing make this better way possible. We are delivering it today in ISP networks around the world.

During this situation, we should consider future consumer behavior. Many consumers have now started subscriptions with new services like Disney+. Many more consumers have found new movies and series to love on their favorite OTT services. These consumers may not easily give up these new habits and interests when life returns to normal. For these consumers, their new streaming habits may be their new normal and may not change. Their new streaming consumption will only hasten the transition from broadcast television to Internet TV and, after the pandemic is resolved, their ongoing streaming consumption may add to peak evening hour traffic each day.

The recent and significant COVID-related surge in streaming traffic has exposed the capacity gap. More importantly, the surge creates urgency today for service providers and content publishers to act in collaboration to deploy and adopt the new architecture and business model that will let streaming flourish.

Join Qwilt and this new streaming movement as we go to the edge.