Video and Broadband Speeds

slow-downAkamai has released their latest quarterly report on the state of broadband around the world. Akamai runs network monitoring software for large ISPs and the Internet backbone providers and they get a peek inside actual broadband speeds achieved by end users.

Overall the worldwide Internet keeps getting faster each year. The average speeds achieved by end users was 5.1 Mbps download in the third quarter of 2015, up 14% from the year before. Topping that list was South Korea at 20.5 Mbps followed by Sweden at 17.4 Mbps and Norway at 16.4 Mbps. The US placed 16th globally with an average speed of 12.6 Mbps, up 9.4% from a year ago.

Akamai says that only about 15% of the connection in the world are ready for 4K video which they estimate will require about a 15 Mbps connection. That’s not a totally accurate figure, but rather an average speed for a 4K video connection. Like with all video, the speeds required for any given video clip varies by how much the picture changes, with high action video requiring more bandwidth than low-action scenes.

And so a house that had exactly a 15 Mbps connection could watch some 4K video, but they might not be able to watch a very high-action film. Further, this measurement ignores the fact that these days homes have an additional need for bandwidth for a host of other uses that range from emails, programs and apps that talk to the cloud and a host of other things that happen in the background. It’s more realistic to think that a home is going to need something closer to 20 Mbps if they are going to want to reliably watch 4K video while accommodating other normal uses of bandwidth.

One of the most interesting statistics of the survey is that the number of homes that get at least 15 Mbps rose to 15% from only 5.2% a year earlier. It’s obvious that ISPs are selling more higher bandwidth connections.

There was a recent announcement that is going to have a big impact on the ability of people to watch quality video. Netflix announced that it is rolling out a new technology that is going to maximize the quality of video to each user experience. It is going to offer what it thinks is the best bit rate based upon the content being viewed and the viewer’s video stream. Again, this goes back to the fact that there is a significant difference between a high-action movie and one that just has people sitting and talking.

In the past Netflix only had a few standard speeds that they tried. If they were unable to get a stream through at the speed that people requested they would step the speed down to a fairly low level and hoped it worked. But for people on slow connections, this often has meant lower quality movies, but also transmission problems such pauses in the movie stream when viewing outpaced download.

The new technology is supposedly going to be a lot more dynamic. Before, if somebody asked for an HD stream then Netflix tried to send it out at 5.8 Mbps. If a customer’s ISP couldn’t handle this they were automatically downloaded to something much slower.

But now, Netflix will first set the download speed according to the content. There are low-action HD videos that might only need 4 or 4 Mbps. And so Netflix will figure out the optimum target speeds for each type of content. Further, they will use a wide range of possible step-downs in speeds rather than going directly from HD to a very slow speed.

I’ve seen this being touted in a number of articles as something that will save a lot of bandwidth for Netflix since they will not force all HD content into 5.8 Mbps streams. But those articles also see this as a savings for ISPs and I think they are wrong. I think this means that ISPs with very fast speeds will also see a bandwidth savings, but interestingly, ISPs with slow network speeds will probably see an overall increase in bandwidth demand from Netflix.

Today if an ISP offers 3 Mbps, then Netflix might send them an HD video at a third of that speed. But with this new technology Netflix is going to try to maximize the customer experience and will use up more of the available bandwidth. This technology will also make it easier for households with somewhat slow bandwidth to watch more than one video at a time and the Netflix algorithms will try to fit the content into the available data path.

For now Netflix is the only company doing this, but like with all breakthroughs you can expect the rest of the industry to catch up in a year or so. One thing is certain, and that is that web video is here to stay and ISPs are going to be under tremendous pressure to provide enough bandwidth to allow people to watch what they want online. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the demand of household bandwidth.

 

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