There’s little doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the ways we live our lives. Many of us work from home now, while others don’t have that luxury and continue working on-site in the face of greater risk.
And while it’s certainly not the biggest concern or the most important focus right now, the pandemic has clearly had a profound effect on cord cutting and streaming in general.
We’re binge-watching more, and starting earlier in the day. We’re streaming video conferences in the morning and catching new releases at night, sometimes months earlier than movie studios originally planned.
All the while, broadband providers, telcos, and entertainment companies have all been rapidly deploying deals, access to free content, and more in the spirit of keeping us entertained and connected during the outbreak.
It’s an ever-evolving situation, but here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the cord-cutting community.
Streaming Surges in March
With various government officials and health professionals urging us to stay home and avoid going out at night, it’s clear more of us are streaming content, and streaming that content more often.
In its Weekly CTA Tech Use and Purchase Tracker, the Consumer Technology Association surveyed US households over the last few days of March and found that two-thirds said they turned to streaming or downloaded entertainment to pass the time.
The biggest use case, perhaps unsurprisingly, was streaming video services, with 55 percent of homes saying they’d used a service in the past week. That was followed by music (31 percent) and streaming live TV (25 percent).
Meanwhile, the CTA also says nearly half of respondents turned to online food ordering or delivery, further contributing to a spike in internet usage.
“Americans are experiencing an unprecedented lifestyle shift during the COVID-19 crisis and finding ways that enable them to adjust to the situation,” Lesley Rohrbaugh, CTA’s director of research, said in a recent report. “Tech services including food and grocery delivery and online streaming are helping families stay healthy, engaged and connected.”
Internet service providers have also taken note of the changes in our behavior. Recent data from Comcast shows streaming and web video use has jumped 38 percent compared to the start of March. And as more and more workers were asked to work from home, VoIP and video conferencing also spiked by 212 percent during March.
Clearing up Congestion
With the spikes in overall usage and the rise in streaming video, many have started wondering how the internet as a whole would cope.
In fact, several major streaming services have opted to reduce their video quality temporarily in some regions. Europe, in particular, has seen a number of companies opt to proactively lower quality in a bid to ease congestion. Halfway through March, Netflix said it would reduce video bitrates with the aim of lowering its impact on European networks by 25 percent. Within days, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ all announced similar plans.
Later in the month, YouTube announced it would start limiting video quality worldwide, setting default quality to standard definition. However, users could still opt to bump the resolution up if they wanted to.
Meanwhile, Netflix said it was also open to adjusting video quality beyond Europe if the need arose and governments felt it was necessary to preserve overall bandwidth.
ISPs Say Networks Are Holding
Even with the steps taken by streaming services, there’s still ongoing concern about the internet’s ability to handle the uptick in traffic.
Ookla, which runs the popular Speedtest.net service that gauges internet performance, has been tracking usage patterns over the past few weeks and noted drops in performance.
“Week over week we have started to see a degradation of speeds,” it said in a March 23rd report on global internet usage.
In the US, the company noted slight decreases in download speed as March progressed, from hovering around an average 140 Mbps down closer to 130 Mbps by month’s end.
Comcast, naturally, has been keeping an eye on traffic, and it’s also noted a shift in the way we’ve been using the internet lately.
“Since March 1, our peak traffic is up 32% overall and up 60% in some areas, but still within the overall capacity of our network,” Comcast said in a March 30th report.
The company’s data suggests we’ve been downloading data earlier in the day, presumably because we’re staying home rather than going out before streaming content later in the evening. Peak download times now start around 7:30 pm, compared to 9 pm on March 1st.
Perhaps even more telling: Peak upload time has shifted from 9 pm on March 1st to between 8 am and 6 pm, otherwise known as work hours. That shift tracks with the huge uptick in video conferencing during the day.
Despite the increased activity, major internet service providers like Comcast have remained confident they’re up to the task.
“We engineer the network to handle spikes and shifts in usage, and what we have seen so far with COVID-19 is within our capacity,” Comcast’s Tony Werner said in a report on Comcast’s site.
Of course, it’s fairly standard practice for companies to exude confidence during unusual events — a resounding, “We got this,” in the face of adversity. Indeed, Comcast’s stats show traffic in areas that were among the first to issue stay-at-home orders, like Seattle and San Francisco, has begun to plateau, suggesting those areas have settled into a new normal for the time being.
As the saying goes, however, your mileage may vary, and it’s possible the uptick in network traffic may affect some locations worse than others.
In any case, we’ll continue keeping a close watch on how broadband providers and telco respond to the situation, and how those actions could affect consumers.
Taking the Pledge
For its part, the Federal Communications Commission looks like it’s trying to stay proactive on the matter, enlisting hundreds of companies to sign on to its Keep Americans Connected Pledge.
For 60 days, companies that have signed on, including local, regional, and national providers, all agree to not terminate residential or small business service if they can’t pay due to the pandemic’s impact. They must also waive late fees or charges incurred because of pandemic-related issues. WiFi hotspots must also be opened to the public.
Beyond that, many companies have added on their own deals and offers, often portraying the moves as goodwill gestures to customers, both current and potential.
And yes, a great many of the offers are remarkably robust, including weeks or months of free access to previously paywalled content. Elsewhere, phone companies have touted low-cost, $15 phone plans and other cost-saving options for eligible families.
However, it’s worth pointing out that these are, at the end of the day, businesses and they surely wouldn’t mind if many of those checking out free previews stuck around to sign up once the trial periods end.
That shouldn’t deter consumers from evaluating new content, offers, and channels, of course, but it’s worth giving the terms a good read, especially if costs and budget are central tenets of your cord-cutting philosophy.
Staying Safe and in Place
At the moment, here in early April, 2020, it’s impossible to know how long this outbreak will last — not to mention assessing the impact of all the knock-on effects it’s had on the various aspects of everyday life. And for all the jokes we’ve seen about “finishing” Netflix or rewatching The Office for the 80th time, streaming entertainment has been a vital go-to for millions of homes.
And both consumers and corporations will likely come out of all this having learned something new about the way we consume entertainment. Maybe companies will ease back on data caps for the long term. Perhaps cord cutters will discover new shows to love, or realize they’re just fine without a particular service.
Either way, the world of cord cutting continues to evolve at a rapid pace, and we’ll do our best to make sure consumers stay informed.
Stay up to date on free trials, streaming deals, and more with our coronavirus resource guide for cord cutters.
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