Why Netflix Likely Won’t Need to Throttle Service in the US

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“We’re in this absolutely cartoonish situation,” internet pioneer Paul Vixie tells TheWrap

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings delivers a keynote address at CES 2016
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Do Netflix subscribers in the U.S. need to worry about their service being downgraded in the same way Italy and other European countries have been impacted as a result of increased use during the coronavirus pandemic? Probably not. That’s according to internet trailblazer David Clark, who currently serves as a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Clark, in an interview with TheWrap this week, said he doesn’t anticipate Netflix or other streaming services needing to scale back their service domestically. This comes after Netflix last week said it would significantly reduce its bit rates across Europe, in an effort to reduce traffic on European networks by “around 25%.” YouTube and Amazon Prime Video joined in shortly after, and YouTube later switched this week to making standard definition streaming its default setting worldwide, to help free up bandwidth with more people staying home due to COVID-19. (YouTube viewers can still manually shift back to watching high definition video.) A person with knowledge of Netflix’s plans said the company will continue working with internet providers and governments if it needs to make any additional changes, but had nothing to say about potential throttling plans in the U.S. Clark said Netflix subscribers may run into issues with their streaming quality while spending more time at home — but those problems are localized and short-term. “The important thing to remember is there is no homogenous thing called the internet,” Clark said. “It’s a collection of systems, and if there’s an overload, the overload can occur in one part of the system. It doesn’t occur cosmically.  It doesn’t happen that way.” The European infrastructure isn’t as robust as in the U.S., where broadband speeds average about 137 megabits per second. That’s more than twice as fast as the average in Italy and other European countries. This has led streamers to be more proactive in slowing down their service oversees, according to internet pioneer Paul Vixie, who is the co-founder and CEO of Farsight Security in the Bay Area. “We’re in this absolutely cartoonish situation,” Vixie told TheWrap, “where [streamers are] reducing their output level, not because they don’t have a network that can deliver it, but because the last mile that’s between [a streamer’s] data center and some territory and the end user, does not have enough capacity to both stream video and run Zoom now working from home.” Since this isn’t the case in the U.S., at least on a widespread basis, it’s probably not worth fretting about Netflix or other companies proactively slowing down their service. COVID-19 may be forcing millions of Americans to grapple with significant changes to their day-to-day lives, but how they stream content likely isn’t one of them. Clark compared the issue of slow streaming to hitting traffic at a roundabout at rush hour; it’s a pain, but it’s short term, and it’s local — and doesn’t mean everywhere else is experiencing the same traffic problems. “What we’re going to see on the internet, I think, is local problems,” Clark continued.  If you happen to be in a neighborhood where capacity coming into that neighborhood hasn’t been upgraded, you and your neighbors may be frustrated and see spinning wheels, things of that nature. But that’s a local problem.” Based on data collected by MIT and UC San Diego, Clark said there’s no evidence to suggest the U.S. internet infrastructure is close to melting down — meaning there’s no reason for streamers to reduce their quality upfront. According to data shared by Cloudflare with Vox, U.S. internet traffic is up about 18% compared to early January. That’s a manageable surge, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince told Vox, akin to traffic seen during the Super Bowl. And because the internet doesn’t have an elasticity problem, it’s not something that “wears out,” he added. In other words: several months of this kind of usage won’t damage the U.S. internet infrastructure.