Coronavirus: BT has 'plenty of capacity' despite Netflix quality cuts

BBC Technology 20 Mar 2020 10:37
Internet useImage copyright Getty Images

BT says its broadband infrastructure has plenty of "headroom" to cope with increased demand as more people stay home due to coronavirus.

The company said that since Tuesday, data use on its network had increased by between 35-60%.

On Thursday, Netflix said it would lower the picture quality of movies in Europe, to reduce data use.

But BT said daytime and evening usage was still much lower than the highest levels it had ever recorded.

In a statement, BT said: "The additional load... is well within manageable limits and we have plenty of headroom for it to grow still further".

The highest rate of traffic BT has ever seen on its own network is 17.5 terabits per second (Tbps), on an evening where there was high demand for video games downloads and streaming football.

At a data rate of 1Tbps, 125 gigabytes (GB) is downloaded every second - the equivalent of about 55 high-definition movies.

By comparison, average daytime use on BT's network this week has been 7.5Tbps - far below the highest peak that the company said it had been able to handle.

  • mobile internet use had reduced by 5% on its networks as people stay at home and use the wi-fi
  • data use peaked at 17:00 GMT every day this week, the time of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's daily news briefing about the coronavirus

It said current use was "well within the levels the network is built to handle", but encouraged customers to use a landline phone if they have one, or internet voice-calling services such as Skype, WhatsApp or Zoom instead.

Movie streaming

The company said it was in response to "the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus".

Amazon's Prime Video said it was talking to local authorities, and had "already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates whilst maintaining a quality streaming experience" in Europe - including the UK.

Several factors influence how much data is used when streaming a movie online.

Another is bitrate, which influences how clear and smooth videos look when streamed online

Out of these two, Netflix says it will cut its streaming bitrates. Customers who pay for higher-definition services will still get higher-resolution video.

"The UK has a very capable core network because UK consumers are more heavily invested in HD-streaming video, including live football, Netflix, than many other nations," a spokesman said.

"I've seen a flurry of media stories reflecting an understandable concern that our networks will be unable to cope with the additional traffic of millions of home-workers," Howard Watson, BT's technology officer, said.

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