In spite of the fact that the spike in internet traffic has been lower than expected over the COVID-19 lockdown in India, Netflix and YouTube continue to suppress video quality even on fixed line networks. We found that YouTube does not allow for streaming higher than a resolution of 480p on mobile devices, even when connected to WiFi (85% of Indians access YouTube on mobile). Similarly, Netflix does not stream its highest available bitrate for any title. Patriot Act, for instance, maxes out at 2.9Mbps for 1080p, but goes all the way up to 5.6Mbps in the US. These restrictions are being rolled back in Europe, a continent with much more data use per citizen than India. We have reached out to Netflix and YouTube to find out why these restrictions continue even on fixed line networks. These restrictions first started across streaming services when the COVID-19 lockdown started in India. We are unable to determine the situation for other streaming services because they provide less transparency into their streaming bitrates.

Do wireless networks need lower video bitrates in the first place?

To be clear, these restrictions are not necessarily needed today even on mobile networks. Telecom association COAI director general Rajan Mathews told us that the average spike in data use has mostly been 12–15%. Let’s assume that this growth would have been double that with video bitrates at previous levels. Even so, it’s astonishing that telecom networks, essential services from the very beginning of the lockdown, are unable to handle this kind of increase in traffic, or are unwilling to let streaming videos use a little more bandwidth for whatever reason. Two months into the lockdown, telecom operators have been receiving praise for keeping networks up, but not nearly enough criticism for intransparent measures of unclear efficacy like reducing streaming quality across all streaming services.

If telecom operators can handle this surge, wireline operators with capped data plans certainly can too. A senior source at a leading fixed broadband provider told MediaNama that they never asked for bitrate limitations from streaming providers, and weren’t even aware that they were in place until we asked them. In the absence of valid reasons to uniformly sacrifice video quality several months into a lockdown, all we can point to as the culprit is politics. The telecom secretary personally called up streaming services at COAI’s urging to get them to reduce streaming quality, Mathews had revealed in a webinar I attended.

The end result is streaming services are too timid to cross industry and government to give even a few of their Indian customers the experience they paid for, at a time when most of us are stuck at home. Degraded video streaming, by the way, is a classic Net Neutrality doomsday scenario, where ISPs restrict video quality from companies like Netflix to advance their own agenda — like when Comcast slowed down Netflix traffic in the US until the company coughed up some payments, or when the company also “reluctantly” paid AT&T and Time Warner for the same thing. Here, a similar thing seems to have happened, except the streaming services are unquestioningly participating, and nobody is benefiting, least of all the consumer.