Update (24 March): Netflix said that it will join other streaming services in India and reduce the bitrates of its videos to avoid congesting networks. This comes as the COVID-19 outbreak has led to telecom companies to put pressure on the government and streaming services to reduce this load on their networks.

Earlier (23 March): Zee5 CEO Tarun Katial said the company would reduce streaming bitrates as the COVID-19 pandemic increases strain on internet infrastructure. “We strongly believe that, given the current scenario where the internet consumption is at an all-time high due to COVID-19 and self-isolation, we will continue to serve the best of quality entertainment for audiences across India at the most appropriate and minimal bitrate required,” Katial said. Voot COO Gourav Rakshit also said the company would reduce streaming bitrates for users, adding that most Voot users were already limited to SD (standard definition) already.

Amazon Prime Video has also started reducing streaming bitrates in India, the company said in a statement. Hoichoi has removed the option for 1080p downloads and is working to reduce the maximum streaming resolution to 720p, the company’s head of revenue and strategy Soumya Mukherjee said in a statement.

Hotstar said that it would not make any changes to its streaming bitrates for the moment, and pointed out that most of its customers do not get HD streaming in the first place: “[A] bulk of our customers are bound by their Hotstar subscription plans and cannot stream videos at high bit-rates. Our HD resolution is available only to our paying subscribers whereas our larger base of about 300 million AVOD users see SD, hence our data consumption as a freemium platform is controlled,” a Hotstar spokesperson told MediaNama.

On March 22, the telecom group COAI wrote to streaming services in India urging them to reduce their data use, the Economic Times reported. In response to that letter, MX Player has remotely turned on Data Saving mode on their app, per a statement by the company. MediaNama has reached out to all streaming services that COAI wrote to except Viu and SunNXT, and will update this piece as the companies respond.

Over the last week, streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ have taken steps to ramp down their customers’ data use in Europe. As more and more cities start shutting down and work moves to the home, it is unclear how ready internet providers are to handle the surge in traffic.

Streaming services’ comments

MediaNama had reached out to Netflix, Hotstar, Zee5, Voot, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Sony LIV, Hoichoi and ALT Balaji. Here are the full comments we have received so far:

Netflix VP of Content Delivery Ken Florance: “Given the crisis, we’ve developed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on telecommunications networks by 25% while also maintaining the quality of our service. So consumers should continue to get the quality that comes with their plan – whether it’s Ultra-High, High or Standard Definition. We believe that this will provide significant relief to congested networks and will be deploying it in India for the next 30 days”

Google spokesperson: “We continue to work closely with governments and network operators around the globe to do our part to minimize stress on the system during this unprecedented situation. Last week, we announced that we were temporarily defaulting all videos on YouTube to standard definition in the EU. Given the global nature of this crisis, we will expand that change globally starting today. “

Amazon Prime Video spokesperson: We support the need for careful management of telecom services to ensure they can handle the increased internet demand with so many people now at home full-time due to COVID-19. Amazon Prime Video is working with local authorities, Mobile Service Providers and Internet Service Providers where needed to help mitigate any network congestion, including in India where we’ve already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates whilst maintaining a quality streaming experience for our customers.

Zee5 CEO Tarun Katial: “As a responsible video streaming player, we are totally committed to undertake any preventive measures which would collectively help Government of India and the entire ecosystem curb this unprecedented situation caused due to COVID-19 outbreak. We support COAI’s effort in bringing all the stakeholders together to find a common solve, ensuring smooth functioning of Data Communications Services in this critical period. Since inception, we have been closely working with some of the world’s finest deep tech start-ups and have instilled cutting-edge technology at the player level, encoder and streams to serve quality content even in a slow 3G network area. We strongly believe that, given the current scenario where the internet consumption is at an all-time high due to COVID-19 and self-isolation, we will continue to serve the best of quality entertainment for audiences across India at the most appropriate and minimal bitrate required. We understand Indian audiences data consumption pattern and have initiated measures to restrict the streams being delivered on any device at the player level, which will ensure the existing bandwidth is not overstretched.”

Hotstar statement: (NOTE: Hotstar told MediaNama on 25 March that it will be reducing bitrates on videos, including for Premium subscribers. What follows is their original statement on 23 March.) “Hotstar is one of the most efficient and lean streaming services in the world. Our service is built for India and its mobile first and cost-conscious consumers. We have always aimed to deploy the most efficient and best in class video encoding technology. Our video streaming is based on Adaptive Bitrate Streaming, which ensures that we are lean in internet consumption. We optimize our encoding on the basis of the type of content complexity (entertainment versus live sports) and we also extensively measure the most common bit-rates that customers can stream at in order to be lean on data.

“Further, a bulk of our customers are bound by their Hotstar subscription plans and cannot stream videos at high bit-rates. Our HD resolution is available only to our paying subscribers whereas our larger base of about 300 million AVOD users see SD, hence our data consumption as a freemium platform is controlled.That being said, we are mindful of this extraordinary situation and are closely monitoring it. In the larger consumer and national interest, we are geared to dynamically make changes and are prepared to reduce the bitrate for our HD streams, should the need arise.

“We pride ourselves on being an organization that always does the right thing for its customers, and by extension, the general populace. We are mindful that at a time when people are homebound, their need for watching Hotstar has gone up further and we will do everything to service them, while keeping in mind the larger context.”

Voot COO Gourav Rakshit: “We have seen a significant lift in consumption over the past week, and are glad to see the directives issued by DoT and COAI oriented to minimizing the data serving burden on our consumers and infrastructure. With the expansion to 100M users, Voot, had already begun streaming in SD across our user base to ensure a seamless and cost efficient solution for our users, which was efficient for the overall infrastructure. We do have a very small percentage of our users on the Voot Select platform, and they are also already able to downshift to an SD feed in line with their increased consumption.

“The health and wellness of the team and their families are of high priority for as at Viacom18 and we have implemented work from home for all our employees from 13th March itself. Remote monitoring from home is in place to ensure that customers continue to have the same seamless experience we have been providing from our offices. Teams are empowered to deploy hot fix solutions from home as needed, just the same as they would from the workplace. We also a very good and robust content pipeline of Indian as well as international content available for our users that will continue to keep them engaged while they are safe at home.”

Soumya Mukherjee, Head – Revenue & Strategy, Hoichoi: We have removed the 1080p button from the Offline Download section with only the 720p one activated. We are also working towards a 720p streaming instead of the original 1080p, this will be executed at the earliest. As hoichoi does not support any ads, being an SVOD based streaming platform, it will help in rolling back our bit-rates considerably.

hoichoi has implemented work from home for all its employees with the rise of COVID-19 in India. Employees have been given a prior training of an internal software, through which all discussions within departments are taking place for a smooth work flow. There was also an earlier disbursement of salary for everyone to do their emergency shopping and even for daily needs and wants, one might have for oneself or for their families. A session on encouraging directives laid out by the Government was done digitally for all employees.
Vivek Jain, COO, MX Player: Considering that majority offices have declared work from home, we understand the impact this will have on network infrastructure. Internet bandwidth is scarce. At such times, it is key that wheels of the economy keep running and all activities can be continued with sufficient bandwidth available. Especially at our scale (175 Million users), it is important that we play our part in preserving a smooth functioning of the internet during this crisis. As a result, we have decided to double down on our efforts to provide the best customer experience while conserving bandwidth. I am happy to share that collectively, all our advancements will reduce MX bandwidth consumption by over 70%.
Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO of ALTBalaji and Group COO at Balaji Telefilms: “The testing times that we are experiencing today, require each one of us to stay united, resilient and restrained to overcome this pandemic. The current scenario demands social distancing and Work from Home that has resulted in an all-time high internet consumption. Amidst the surge in video consumption and the subsequent directives request issued by DOT and COAI, we are already on the path to expedite steps that lessen the pressure on the Telecom Infrastructure. We are encouraging our viewers to stay safe in self-isolation for which we shall continue to serve quality entertainment at the most optimized data usage. We are constantly working towards reducing the bit rate for our streams and resolving content resolution so that our subscribers during this phase can enjoy our content without buffering. As a call to action and urging our subscribers to make the switch, ALTBalaji is sending them reminders asking them to move to SD (Standard Definition) from HD (High Definition). As a responsible platform, we will endeavour to do our best to support and ease the infrastructure stress.” (Update 26 March: Statement updated by ALTBalaji to replace “directives” with “request”.)
Neeraj Roy, Founder & CEO, Hungama Digital Media: “The grave nature of the pandemic is making people understand the importance of being at home and practice social distancing. OTT platforms are offering people an option to entertain themselves from the safety of their homes, while also giving them a breather from the harsh reality of the situation. We have noticed an over 20% spike in viewership on Hungama Play since the beginning of March. While this trend started in the metros – Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, we are noticing similar trajectory from other cities too. However, it is important for users to stream responsibly. With the majority of the country’s workforce now operating from home and other citizens depending on the Internet for essential tasks like e-deliveries, information sharing etc., it is important to keep the bandwidths available for more pressing needs. Since entertainment is important to combat the monotony of being at home 24/7, users don’t need to stop streaming, they just need to be more considerate while doing so. We understand the concerns of the authorities and are happy to follow all steps suggested by them to ease the pressure on the network infrastructure.”

Last mile connectivity

One of Netflix’s network engineers pointed out how last mile connectivity is the weakest link in an internet that is otherwise ready to scale for situations like this:

At least as far as broadband goes, I can speak anecdotally to the last mile connectivity part. In college, I got a cutting-edge fiber connection from a class ‘A’ ISP. And for last mile connectivity, this is what I had to do: a router at the top of my building — not too different from the one I was using in my apartment — connected all the subscribers in my building to the ISP’s point of presence in my neighbourhood. In that point of presence, which I visited, there were two server racks running hot. How was the temperature on those things regulated? With a water cooler blowing a fine mist at the servers directly. How ready is such a last mile skeletal system to deal with the surge in complex traffic patterns in the COVID-19 pandemic era?