As Americans retreat to their home offices to try and get some work done and students transition to remote classrooms, the internet is being subjected to an unprecedented strain. Meetings that were once conducted in person are now a grid of tiny video boxes on a screen. Streaming video makes up the lion’s share of overall bandwidth usage, with file sizes exponentially larger than text, still images, and audio files. In the United States, our online infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the load.
Anecdotally, here’s what my internet situation has been for the last five days. My downstream traffic, despite a bazillion modem reboots, is basically nonexistent. I’m talking download speeds in the kilobits per second (or Kbps) range (I pay for 300 megabits per second) — and that’s when I’m getting any connection at all.
My upstream traffic, however, is entirely fine. The disparity leads me to believe that my horrific download speeds are not an issue with my individual connection to my ISP, but with my ISP as a whole. My experience is not unique. A lot of people are teleconferencing, and without the watchful eyes of management, some are probably streaming TV and movies as they work too. One former FCC staffer told CNN that the unprecedented uptick in working from home is “an enormous stress test for our communications networks.” According to Cloudflare, a company that provides infrastructure support to many websites and online services, online traffic jumped 20 percent this past Friday, and usage is up as much as 40 percent in cities like Seattle compared to pre-pandemic periods.
There is more strain on the network than ever and nothing that I, on an individual level, can do to fix the problem on my own. The internet service providers either need to build out increased capacity — an unlikely option given both the logistical challenges of doing so in the current emergency situation and the regional monopolies that many ISPs enjoy — or everyone using the network needs to use it less. Much like social distancing, the internet will only get unclogged if everyone chills out a bit.
This is why it is your duty, as a member of American society, to downgrade your bitrate. For the good of the nation, for the benefit of your neighbors with subpar connections, it is vital that you do your part.
Video platforms allow you to stream on a number of quality levels, all the way from low-quality mobile (240p or 320p) all the way up to 4K (2,160p). Allow me to illustrate this concept with math. In a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, a 4K video (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) has 8,294,400 pixels in every frame. A 1,080p video (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) has 2,073,600 pixels — exactly one quarter of a 4K video. A video at 720p, technically high-definition but not as good as 1080p, has 921,600 pixels. A video at 480p, which is DVD-quality, has 409,920 pixels.
See how each number gets significantly smaller? That’s math! For every 4K video you’re streaming, you could run four videos at 1,080p (or you could run just one stream and leave the rest of that bandwidth free for your neighbors) or nine videos at 720p. (Video file size is dependent on a number of factors, like how it’s encoded and what compression is used as it’s transmitted, so it’s not an exact science. The point remains: higher-resolution video uses more bandwidth.)
This is why many video sites that operate in Europe, including Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon Video, have voluntarily downgraded their video quality in order to adapt to the load. Europe has stronger legal mechanisms for compelling edge providers to do this anyway, so companies are getting out ahead of it. In the United States, such regulation is far less likely to happen, so those same aforementioned downgrades are not happening here. We’d also be wading into tricky waters regarding jurisdiction and net neutrality if we ask the government or ISPs to play favorites with traffic themselves. I don’t think we’re quite there — yet.
Most video players by default scale the quality dynamically based on available bandwidth, so just go into the video player settings, and turn the quality down manually. I promise that you will not be able to tell the difference between 4K and 1080p in most cases, and 720p is only a slight downgrade. You don’t need to watch season six of Grace and Frankie (not saying this is me) in eye-popping clarity, I promise you. Even if you do notice the slightly degraded quality, who cares? This isn’t about you and your need to see Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston — four veterans still at the top of their respective games — in optimal viewing conditions. This is about everyone.
Do your part. Lower the bitrates.