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How to Avoid Streaming Problems as Demand Increases

By: Ernest Sampera on April 2, 2020

With more and more people being advised (or required) to remain home during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, streaming providers are facing serious challenges due to sharp spikes in demand. More people are using online media content than ever before, which is putting significant strain on the internet’s infrastructure as a whole. It’s also impacting consumers, who are being forced to deal with jittery, fragmented media content. Just as the coronavirus crisis is testing the resilience of the world’s healthcare systems and workplaces, it’s also testing the ability of streaming providers to manage increased demand without falling victim to costly downtime.

Why Increased Demand Impacts Streaming Quality

The analogy may be a tired one, but it’s still instructive to think about streaming data over internet connections in terms of plumbing. Clean water travels from a treatment facility to individual homes through pipes of varying sizes. The bigger the pipe, the more water can travel through it. In this analogy, the pipe diameter corresponds to bandwidth, or the amount of data packets that can be transmitted through a connection at any one time. Without high-bandwidth fiber-optic connections and 4G wireless, it would be impossible to smoothly stream media content (as anyone who remembers the heady days of 28.8 kbps modems surely recalls).

But bandwidth isn’t the only consideration here. There’s also the problem of distance. Much like water traveling through a pipe, data is still constrained by the laws of physics and can only travel so fast. When someone turns on a garden hose in their backyard, it takes time for the water to travel the length of the hose to reach the nozzle. The same holds true with data packets, which must often travel vast distances from a provider’s hyperscale data center to a customer’s device. This delay is known as latency. Higher latency causes streaming media content to stutter and lag, which lower latency connections are smoother.

So while overall streaming speed and quality is generally dictated by bandwidth and latency, consumer demand is an important variable that can create problems for content providers. Much like public water systems, streaming connectivity infrastructure is designed to account for a certain amount of demand in order to deliver reliable services consistently. When demand exceeds the capacity of that infrastructure, the quality of service suffers. The public water system may be able to supply water to every house in a neighborhood, but if every homeowner turns on every faucet in their house at the same time, there’s going to be a drop in water pressure.

Similarly, if every streaming customer accesses services at the same time, the provider’s infrastructure doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver all of that content quickly. The problem is even worse for customers located farther from the data’s point of origin due to latency.

4 Ways to Overcome Slow Streaming Problems

1. Increasing Bandwidth

The simplest solution to most slow streaming woes is simply increasing bandwidth. Fundamentally, most streaming problems are capacity problems. There just isn’t enough bandwidth for internet connections to handle additional streaming demand as well as growing demands from an increasingly remote workforce. Unfortunately, increasing bandwidth isn’t an easy solution as it involves expanding physical infrastructure (such as laying down additional or replacing old cabling). While it may be the best long-term solution, it’s not particularly feasible during the current coronavirus pandemic.

2. Utilize Edge Data Centers

One of the most effective ways of reducing latency and easing the overall burden on existing infrastructure is to cache high-demand content in edge data centers that are located closer to end users. This strategy allows consumers to access local content more readily, and since it travels a shorter distance, they will experience far less latency. Another benefit of edge data centers is that since they can handle content demands in a local market, the broader infrastructure beyond them doesn’t have to handle as many streaming requests, which frees up valuable bandwidth for other services.

While increasing bandwidth requires laying down more cabling to transmit more data, shifting some content to edge data centers is far more practical as an immediate solution. Even if a streaming provider can’t manage to place physical servers in these facilities, there are many managed service providers who work closely with edge data centers to set up virtual hosting relatively quickly to meet urgent business needs.

3. Limit Live Streaming

There are a few measures companies can take on the service side to improve the quality of their streaming services. Perhaps the easiest target is live streaming, which is far more bandwidth-intensive than previously recorded video. While streaming video content can be broken up into smaller data packets and transmitted across many different connection routes to reach its destination, live streams must be delivered all at once to ensure an uninterrupted live feed. With most schools and many businesses closed down due to COVID-19, live streaming has increased dramatically as a way of delivering educational instruction and facilitating remote workplace meetings. Cutting down on non-essential live streaming services could help to free up bandwidth to accommodate rising demand in other areas.

4. Reduce Streaming Quality

Another relatively easy measure companies can take to deal with streaming problems is to reduce the overall quality of streaming content. Netflix and YouTube, for instance, have already scaled back video quality in Europe to help reduce strain on internet infrastructure. While customers may prefer to watch video content in high definition, streaming HD content takes up significantly more bandwidth than standard definition (about 3GB per hour vs 0.7GB per hour). If the tradeoff is between laggy, erratic HD content and smooth, reliable SD content, the tradeoff in video quality will likely be worthwhile in the eyes of most consumers. Even better, this is a simple solution that any streaming provider can implement on their end by defaulting all streaming content to SD. This measure can be applied to live streaming as well to further accommodate demand while also limiting bandwidth pressures.

With the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic expected to keep more people at home over the next several months, it’s important for media companies to take steps to resolve the streaming problems caused by increased demand. While some of the most effective measures require more time and capital investment, there are simpler steps they can take immediately to ensure that customers are able to access the content they need without bringing the entire internet to a grinding halt.

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