Internet speed may slow down on high traffic owing to Coronavirus lockdown

The list of streaming companies that COAI wrote to also included Netflix, Amazon Prime, Alt Balaji, and Sony Liv.
Brace for not being able to watch movies in high definition or for slower speed while downloading or streaming your favourite over the top (OTT) platforms. At least for a while. And blame it on coronavirus. 

Three OTT players have responded positively to the request by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) to reduce bandwidth. The request was made to lessen the pressure on telecom networks that are overloaded with extra traffic generated by the lockdown from the coronavirus. 

Out of the 11 streaming video companies that COAI wrote to, Disney’s Hotstar, Zee5, Viacom 18 and its Voot brand have agreed to reduce bitrates so that telecom networks are under less pressure.

The letter, sent a few days ago, asked OTT players to move to standard definition instead of high definition streaming and to remove advertising and pop ups which usually consume high bandwidth.

The list of streaming companies that COAI wrote to also included Netflix, Amazon Prime, Alt Balaji, and Sony Liv amongst others. Separately, the COAI also asked the Department of Telecommunications to instruct OTT players to comply.The telcos say their networks have seen a sudden spurt in demand of over 10 per cent as more and more people work from home or are under quarantine at home due to the lockdown of cities. The disruption caused by the coronavirus has also meant more healthcare and education services and payments going digital.

A spokesperson for Hotstar, the largest OTT player in the market with over 300 million customers, said: “We are mindful of this extraordinary situation and are closely monitoring it. In the larger consumer and national interest, we are geared to dynamically make changes and are prepared, say, to reduce the bitrate for our HD streams should the need arise.”

Hotstar pointed out that its video streaming is based on adaptive bitrate streaming which ensures that its internet consumption is lean. The company optimises the encoding depending on content complexity, for example, entertainment vs live sports. What’s more, said Hotstar, its high definition option is available only for its paying subscribers while the bulk of its 300 million users get standard definition.

Zee5 also said it understood the COAI’s logic and was working closely with it. “We understand the Indian audience’s data consumption pattern and have initiated measures to restrict the streams being delivered on any device at the player level, which will ensure the existing bandwidth is not overstretched,” said Zee5 CEO Tarun Katial.

Over at Viacom 18 Digital Ventures which runs Voot with over 100 million customers, COO Gourav Rakshit expressed a similar sentiment. “We do have a very small percentage of our users on the Voot Select platform (subscription) and they are also ready to downshift to a standard definition feed in line with their increased consumption,” said Rakshit.

Netflix has refused to comment on COAI’s request or divulge its plans, apart from saying it has no advertisements on its platform. 

But are these actions enough to stop the telecom networks buckling under the weight of demand? COAI director general, Rajan S. Mathews, seems to think so. 

“Video streaming constitutes 30-35 per cent of our network capacity. Because many customers stream even TV broadcasting channels, if we shift from high to standard definition, we could reduce bandwidth usage by 20-30 per cent,” he said.

He added that if advertising was also taken off, it would lead to some revenue loss, for sure, but would help telecom service providers to cope with the ‘growing surge’ in data demand.  

Technically, it is possible for telcos themselves to reduce or slow down speeds for streaming channels in order to reduce the load on their networks but this is not permitted by the government owing to the rules on net neutrality.

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