The bandwidth hog rides again

Do you remember Warden Norton in the Shawshank Redemption? More gangster than prison guard, he mistreated prisoners and ran a very shady enterprise on the side. That is until his corruption was exposed when one of those inmates escaped.
You may remember it; but did you stream it?
If you did then you’re not alone.
According to Sandvine one North American operator has seen a 11% rise in peak traffic and an 8% rise in non-peak traffic over and above its normal traffic patterns as a result of the coronavirus crisis. A European network has seen Playstation traffic triple and a US network saw traffic from software updates double as more people took to working from home.
Vodafone has reported a 50% increase in mobile data usage on some of its networks in recent days. Last week saw huge demand on core networks – with BT carrying 17.5Tbit/s on its network when an update to Red Dead Redemption 2, the release of a new Call of Duty game, and Champions League matches coincided with one another.
All of this is being further stimulated by an industry that is falling over itself to be helpful, without really thinking through the consequences.
Many service providers have rushed to announce they’ll be removing data caps or zero rating traffic – taking the brakes off traffic volumes. Virgin Media, for example, has given 3 million mobile customers an extra 10Gb of data and has moved to scrap caps contained on historic broadband contracts.
The result is an unprecedented rise in data volumes. Austria and Spain have seen 40%+ rises in time spent streaming. In Spain there’s been a 40% increase in data consumption and a 50% increase in mobile phone usage. This resulted in Movistar, Orange, Vodafone, Masmovil and Euskaltel releasing a joint statement urging customers to adopt “an intelligent and responsible use of the network and the resources it provides us”. They asked people not to send large documents, to use file compression where possible, and to try to save data-intensive tasks for off-peak hours.
All of a sudden it’s 2010 once more, and the bandwidth hog rides again.
In fact, just days after BT’s Marc Allera assured the UK public that its networks were dimensioned to cope with an increase in traffic from coronavirus-induced homeworking, EU commissioner Thierry Breton publicly appealed to Netflix to restrict high definition (HD) streaming on its platform to take the pressure off networks.

“Even with a massive increase of people working from home, broadband traffic won’t reach the levels of peak times where millions of people stream HD video at the same time. That’s the kind of traffic we’ve built our networks to support. We’re making sure there’s plenty of capacity in the network and that critical services are supported, and our network has more than ten times the amount of capacity needed for normal everyday use. Working from home won’t generate significantly more traffic across our network than working in the office, even with more video calling and conferencing. So if more people need to work from home, our network will keep up with demand.” Marc Allera, CEO, BT Consumer Division 

History is littered with examples of hubris. This is Allera’s. His mistake was to forget two key things:

  • the core network may well be able to cope with quite a bit more traffic, but the network is dimensioned to carry daytime traffic from specific areas (such as business districts) back to the core. It is not dimensioned to carry this traffic on suburban broadband – especially when this is combined with domestic usage. It is not just about how much data networks can handle, but data throughput in access networks for very peaky or latency sensitive traffic. In other words, the issue is bottlenecks in the access network and not capacity in the core. With one of the lowest full fibre penetration rates in Europe (10% FTTP/B compared to 91% in Sweden, 98% in Spain and 99% in Portugal), the UK is littered with bottlenecks in the access network
  • past performance is no guarantee of future performance (as the investment community likes to say). People’s behaviour has changed substantially as a result of the crisis. Not only are they working at home and using business apps (including videoconferencing), they are simultaneously streaming video to keep abreast of the changing news, streaming audio to keep them company, and letting their kids (who are now off school) play YouTube vids whilst they’re working. This level of traffic is made worse because people are substituting digital entertainment and communication services for other interactions. Instead of going to a pub, restaurant or cinema, or meeting up with friends for dinner, everyone is self-isolating and streaming video to stave off the boredom. In other words, extrapolating previous behaviour was a poor model to predict what is actually happening.

Breton’s appeal to Netflix and other streamers has a logic to it. HD uses roughly three times as much data as watching something in standard definition (SD).  Netflix responded quickly, saying it will cut its bit rates in Europe,  according to Variety. This will help; but it won’t be enough.
Sandvine reported that Netflix accounted for 12.6% of downstream traffic in the first half of 2019, but this week YouTube eclipsed it in the rankings – sometimes generating twice as much traffic as Netflix. To maximise the effect, all streamers need to cut to SD. Ultimately, what this demonstrates though is the critical importance of increased fibre penetration to the home and premise, as well as the vital role of intelligent traffic management.

  1. […] quality of the video they’re providing from HD to SD to reduce the impact on networks (see The bandwidth hog rides again), with SD using a third of the data required for HD […]