A Netflix-induced Internet ‘strain’ in Europe? Nonsense, says MIT expert

Bowing to pressure from the EU, Netflix agreed to throttle back the quality of its streaming video service in Europe. But a top Internet scientist says the Internet can more than handle the load.

Submitting to pressure today from the European Union, Netflix agreed to throttle back the quality of its streamers to preserve Internet bandwidth for people quarantined and working from home. But a top MIT computer scientist and Internet pioneer says the move was wholly unnecessary. There’s plenty of Internet bandwidth to go around—in Europe as well as in the rest of the web-connected world.

“That just tells me they don’t understand how the Internet works,” David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and AI Laboratory, told Decrypt late today.

Netflix agrees to downgrade its service

Early Thursday, E.U.’s Internal Market and Services Commissioner Thierry Breton had asked Netflix, YouTube and other streaming services to reduce their use of the Internet. Thierry personally called Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to request the downgraded service.

In response, Netflix agreed to throttle back streams from high definition to standard definition, reducing bitrate in Europe. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” the company said in a statement. The company did not say whether it was considering doing the same thing in the U.S.

Important phone conversation with @ReedHastings, CEO of @Netflix

To beat #COVID19, we #StayAtHome

Teleworking & streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain.

To secure Internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary.

— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) March 18, 2020

But Clark said the Net was built to handle just this sort of thing. What’s more, the increased usage we are seeing now from work-at-home video services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and others ought to be easily handled Internet wide.

An unrealistic approach

“The  idea that somehow this is going to double the peak load is not realistic,” he said, noting that the Internet is engineered to deal with overloads.

According to Clark’s bio, he has been leading the development of the Internet since the mid-1970s. From 1981-1989 he acted as Chief Protocol Architect, and chaired the Internet Activities Board. Currently, he’s concerned “with the re-definition of the architectural underpinnings of the Internet, and the relation of technology and architecture to economic, societal and policy considerations.”

Internet pioneer David Clark
Internet pioneer David Clark says the Net can handle the load

Clark emphasized that Internet bandwidth is not a static thing. More capacity is being added all of the time. If there is a transient uptick in demand, the answer is to add more capacity, so the idea that the Internet could somehow reach its peak, is a myth. There is no peak.

“It has been growing like topsy because of high-definition television,” he said.

Local issues

The important thing for people to understand, Clark emphasized, is that there could be local congestion. “There could be a corner of Cambridge [Massachusetts] where they need to pull more fiber. And you could be having a bad experience—but it is not a systemic failure.”

Asking Netflix to voluntarily downcode all of its video from HD to standard definition doesn’t make a lot of sense, he explained, because Netflix automatically down codes from high definition to standard definition if it encounters congestion anyway.

“It already does that automatically. You don’t have to tell them to. It just does it,” Clark said.

“Unless your goal was to preferentially downgrade entertainment television to make sure something important was getting through, just let the system run because it self adapts,” he said. “The answer is there is a lot of ability in the system to absorb demand shock.”

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