YouTube will downshift its default resolution to DVD-grade. For the next month, that Google service will present videos in “480p” standard definition, the same as on the discs that once constituted America’s primary way to watch movies at home.
The move, first reported Tuesday by Bloomberg, follows an earlier YouTube pledge to constrain its resolution in Europe to relieve networks there as the coronavirus crisis forces an unprecedented shift to working from home. A statement provided to USA TODAY called this expanded cutback Google’s way to “do our part to minimize stress on the system during this unprecedented situation.”
YouTube normally streams the highest-quality version of a video that it thinks your connection can support. For most clips, that means 1080p high definition (“1080” and “480” refer to the picture’s vertical resolution), although YouTube and other streaming services also offer some content in 4K “Ultra High Definition.”
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Per YouTube’s posted requirements, dropping from 1080p to 480p should slash the needed bandwidth from 5 megabits per second to 1.1 megabits per second. (YouTube cites 2.5 Mbps for 720p, a lesser form of high-def video, and 20 Mbps for 4K.) Viewers can still request HD or higher by clicking or tapping the menu button in a video and selecting “Quality.”
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The picture there is not so sharp.
“It is highly likely that this will reduce the consumption numbers overall,” said Cam Cullen, vice president of global marketing at the network-analysis firm Sandvine. That Waterloo, Ontario, company’s stats last week had YouTube constituting 16% of total internet bandwidth, more than any other app.
But, Cullen added, not all YouTube involves high-def video on big displays: “A lot of it is viewed on small screens, we see a lot of it played at SD, so it is unclear how much this will help.”
Michael Goodman, who researches television and media for Strategy Analytics, also voiced some skepticism.
“I think that the impact is somewhat marginal,” he said, noting that YouTube’s lack of 4K content makes it less of a factor in the most bandwidth-heavy sort of video than paid services producing their own 4K fare. “Your biggest culprits of 4K video delivery are going to be Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.”
But, he added, it also lets Google send a signal at little cost. “Companies want to be seen that they’re doing something,” he said.
Telecoms say they have it covered
Telecom executives and regulators say they’re already on top of the increased traffic.
“U.S. broadband networks are holding up just fine,” emailed Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential. He pointed, for instance, to an AT&T report Tuesday that the company’s core network is seeing 27% more traffic but “continues to perform well.”
“We’re dealing with scales of usage that have just never been seen before,” warned CEO and co-founder Doug Suttles. “That’s a new strain.”
Both Suttles and Goodman shared bandwidth-conservation advice that, if implemented at scale, could have a bigger effect: Stick to audio instead of video for your conference calls if the meeting doesn’t demand moving pictures.
Bonus: That way, you won’t have to tidy up your impromptu home office.