How Netflix plans to curb its massive thirst for bandwidth

Online audio and video streaming now takes up more than 70 percent of downstream bandwidth during peak periods in North America. A big chunk of that 70 percent belongs to Netflix, which is easily the most popular premiere streaming service in the U.S. and Canada. Now engineers at Netflix are looking to reduce the service’s bandwidth footprint by as much as 20 percent while drastically improving the image quality for some users, according to a recent report by Variety.

The standard way for a streaming service to deliver video is to have various pre-set image qualities and bandwidth rates for all titles. On a deathly slow connection, a 235 kilobytes per second stream delivers an image with 320-by-240 resolution, while a 1080p image would need nearly 25 times that at 5800kbps.

For the past four years, Netflix has been working on a new approach. Instead of trying a one-size-fits all method, the streaming service is tailoring the bandwidth needs on a title-by-title basis.

This makes a lot of sense conceptually, as pointed out by Variety. A cartoon with a static background and simple character drawings isn’t particularly difficult for a computer to encode. Compare that to a superhero flick like The Avengers or Captain America with a constantly fluid background, explosions, and complex fight scenes. A computer processor needs to do far more crunching to deal with such highly detailed images.

The difference could be quite significant. Under the new scheme, a simple cartoon can stream a 1080p image at 1.5Mbps, and even TV shows like Orange is the New Black can see bandwidth reductions for 1080p images by as much as 20 percent without a noticeable loss in quality, according to Variety.

The story behind the story: While reducing bandwidth needs will help people with slower connections have a better experience, it also helps Netflix in a big way. The company hopes to expand to far more countries in 2016 including places where fat bandwidth pipes are not as readily available as in North America and Europe. Less bandwidth, if it’s a significant enough reduction, could als presumably save Netflix some cash on interconnection payments it makes to U.S. Internet Service Providers.

Netflix plans to bring its new streaming quality scheme to its entire catalog by the end of March 2016.

While bandwidth reductions aren’t the most exciting topic in the world, Variety’s report is well worth a read to see how Netflix is innovating back-end streaming methods and reducing bandwidth. For everyday users, this approach will become more and more important if Comcast does finally expand its bandwidth cap program across the U.S.


Ian Paul

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