Insight: Surge in internet use

TNP looks at how internet use has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, the measures that are being taken to prevent outages, and how the growth in audience size for many streaming platforms may be short-lived

Written by Georgie Dobie

Posted 15.04.2020 | Business

Insight: Surge in internet use thumbnail

People are spending more time than ever inside, with social distancing, quarantining, and lockdown measures now in place in many countries around the world.

Unsurprisingly, this is having a profound effect on media consumption habits, with more time to binge-watch box sets and movies on streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon, and requirements to work from home, with video conferencing tools like Zoom putting an additional weight on broadband. And the internet is being used for home-schooling too, as well as for video game streaming and Twitch-style gaming streams, which have become increasingly popular over the last couple of weeks. Plus, the internet has become a vital tool for keeping in touch with friends and family. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reported “big surges”, with recent demand outpacing New Year’s Eve. 

As such, the prediction from Nielsen (a global measurement and data analytics company with operations in over 100 countries) that we may see almost a 60 per cent increase in the amount of content we watch – and, in some cases, potentially more – seems entirely plausible.

Consider Netflix as one example. Mark Halstead, partner at financial risk and business intelligence firm Red Flag Alert, suggests that Netflix UK may be set to earn an additional £15m each month during the coronavirus pandemic. He reasons that Netflix UK’s usual monthly earnings are in the range of £106 million per month, using Statistica’s estimate of 11.8m users and an average payment plan of £8.99 per month. He goes on to say: “In the UK, it’s reasonable to assume a 15 per cent increase in new Netflix subscribers, which is over 1.7 million more people using the service each month.”

Because of this surge in internet usage, EU officials have been in talks with some of the major players in the video streaming industry, asking them to take measures to ensure they're using telecom networks as efficiently as possible as government-mandated stay-in-place orders take effect.
On 19 March, Netflix made the announcement that it would be reducing the quality of its streams by around 25 per cent. “Following the discussions between Commissioner Thierry Breton and [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings, and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus, Netflix has decided to begin reducing bitrates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” the company said.

“We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent, while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, YouTube, and other video platforms have since all committed to reducing streaming quality in Europe at the request of the EU.

There are fears that the increase in use will place strain on the internet’s infrastructure, which could cause further disruption to remote workers and e-learning activities. Openreach has seen an almost 50 per cent surge in internet data use during working hours in just a week since British schools were closed due to the coronavirus.

But internet providers have stressed that their networks can handle the increased demand. BT has issued a statement to say that while weekday daytime traffic has increased, it is still half of average evening peak usage, and “nowhere near” its network’s full capacity.

However, other industry experts have warned that the measures may not be enough to prevent more outages, with GlobalData Director Emma Mohr-McClune calling on other major bandwidth consumers to take similar action.

Online video game platforms have already seen huge spikes in users in recent weeks. Desktop gaming client Steam recorded over 20m gamers using the platform at one time – an all-time record for the highest number of concurrent users. While research firm StreamElements discovered that Twitch saw a 10 percent increase in viewership over the last week.

“Netflix and [YouTube owner] Alphabet have demonstrated superb industry leadership with this compromise and gesture, but online gaming service providers must now follow suit,” said Emma Mohr-McClune.

“Any mass market spike in activity will have significant consequences for vital government and market functions in Covid-19 lockdown mode.”
And, while media companies may currently be experiencing bigger-than-usual audiences, possible outages may not be the only challenge that these companies could face.

This surge in viewing may be short-lived as the outbreak sees businesses scaling back workers and analysts warning of a global recession, which could result in a significant number of viewers choosing to cut back on streaming subscriptions and cancel cable TV packages. And with customers feeling the pinch, streaming players may find themselves in a price war.

Beyond this necessity to reduce monthly bills, media giants will also be affected by the disappearance of live content, such as sports programming – content tied to high-cost subscriptions.

Adding to these concerns, is the fact that while millions of people are now binge-watching content on these platforms, the media industry has been forced to grind to a halt, with no clear indication of when it will be able to resume normal operations.

On 17 March, an article published by The New York Times considered the 70 Warner Bros. television series on which production had been halted and Netflix’s suspended production of all scripted series and films in the US and Canada for at least two weeks (at the time of writing). It reviewed some of the larger headlines, including Amazon’s shut down on the filming of new multi-season series The Lord of the Rings, as well as all Amazon Original series currently in production. The article mentioned how Disney TV Studios had hit pause on 16 pilots and a handful of current shows on a temporary production hiatus, as well as Apple’s announcement that all its shows produced by outside studios have been suspended for the time being. And it also spoke of the other individual film and television productions that have shut down across the globe, warning that these shutdowns “may reshape popular culture and its economic model for years to come”.

Meanwhile, in other news, people also seem to be listening to more radio. Global, which owns Capital FM and talk station LBC, said online radio listening had risen by 15 per cent. And the BBC said streaming of its radio stations had risen 18 per cent since last week. Whereas the figures for music streaming suggest a downward trend in usage. On 25 March, the BBC reported that data from two US analytics companies suggested use of music-streaming apps such as Spotify had dipped by about eight per cent.

BBC Radio and Education director James Purnell said: “People turn to us during significant events for our news and analysis but also for music, entertainment and companionship.”

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