The other solution to congestion overload came out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when videos began to be sent online more frequently. Video traffic accounts for a huge amount of internet traffic — about 60 percent — so Sherry says they introduced “adaptive bitrate algorithms,” which degrade the quality of video being sent online, depending upon how much traffic there is. Sherry explains, “If I’m watching Netflix at 3 a.m., I’m almost definitely going to get 4K video, but if I’m watching it during a high traffic time after everyone just got home from work, I’m going to be getting standard definition instead. Using Netflix’s numbers, they can support about 50 users at standard definition using the same bandwidth as one user using 4K.”
Every major video service does this, including YouTube, Hulu and anyone else you can think of. Sherry adds that this also happens automatically, which is why she says it was “funny” when these big streaming companies promised to lower their bitrate recently, as people are using more internet under quarantine. “These algorithms already do this automatically, so it was all a bit silly,” Sherry tells me.