How the proliferation of online video is choking the net
The explosion of online video and increasing use of bandwidth-hogging apps could soon push networks to the limit
So your friend went skiing, climbing or cycling with a GoPro and uploaded an entire day's worth of video to YouTube. That's one reason why online video now accounts for 66 per cent of all internet traffic, and it's rising and beginning to cause problems.
Creaking under the pressure of action sports video it might be, but the internet's video onslaught isn't just coming from the rugged GoPro cameras. We're all taking video on our phones, and with the number of smart mobile devices due to double to a couple of billion worldwide by 2017, the internet could soon be pushed to its limits. What's worse, most of it is HD video - as are the majority of movies being streamed across the internet into homes, too.
In the first quarter of 2015, according to GoPro - the makers of the highly successful wearable and mountable HD camcorder - there were, on average, 6,000 daily YouTube uploads and more than one billion views of 50 million hours of videos with "GoPro" in the title, file name, tags or description.
The answer is to upload more. That may seem counter-intuitive, but there are vast swathes of GoPro users who never upload any of their action sports footage.
Britain-based app-maker Antix has an app for iOS and Android devices that can take a snowboarder's two-hours of footage and - at the touch of a button - automatically edit it down to a two-minute highlights reel. The app even promises to upload it to a social network directly from the ski slope.
"Social networks are putting more and more emphasis on video and our dependence on our mobile phones means we can capture a video at any moment of impulse," says Priya Shah, chief marketing officer of Antix. "Video content creation has undoubtedly gone ballistic over the past few years and the sheer volume of content is bound to be a strain on networks."
Shah thinks that most uploaded video is unwanted and unwatchable. "A large portion of uploaded content isn't of high quality or value," she says.
While some think that video needs to be compressed more efficiently, Shah thinks that if everyone could easily create a compelling video, and quickly, few would upload hour upon hour of raw footage from phones and GoPros. "This would alleviate the pressure on peoples' time as well as networks," she says. "We're currently developing big data to unlock the best parts of video footage, as well as making video more searchable - this, in itself, is a huge advancement in compression technology."
However, it's not just action sports, but so-called "heavy" apps that are contributing to the explosion in online video.
"The volume of traffic can cause a bottleneck as the explosion in the variety and volume of apps we use consumes a lot of bandwidth - video apps such as Skype messaging, YouTube and Netflix are major culprits," says Brent Lees, senior product marketing manager at network stability company Riverbed Technology, who says that, by its nature, live video always takes precedence on a network; if it didn't, it wouldn't be possible to watch it.
"When heavy apps go across the network they are prioritised in terms of bandwidth needs," he says. "Video content such as YouTube testimonials need to be in real time, so are given priority on the network, which can cause delays on other less time-sensitive applications."
Increasingly, we're watching video on tablets at home; Cisco reports that tablets will account for 18 per cent of total global internet traffic by 2018. Those in large families, all with various devices connected to a Wi-fi home network, will know how precious bandwidth is.
In many homes, if the kids are all watching YouTube on their tablets while a television streams HD video from Netflix, that's the bandwidth used up. Streaming video across the internet from Netflix has a massive "multiplier effect" on internet traffic, with Cisco reporting that a TV drawing just 50 minutes of video each day from the internet effectively doubles the amount of internet traffic used daily by an entire household.
We're watching more video on the way to work, too. "4G makes streaming and watching videos on social networks far easier," says Shah, but she thinks that mobile networks and technology companies need to start working together to generate ways of making video creation and consumption more efficient. That's the real bottleneck. "We think the real explosion is yet to come."
For now, GoPro and smartphones are being blamed for the burgeoning popularity of video uploads, but it's part of an irreversible shift in how the internet is being used. The so-called Web 3.0 has become personal place, and that's changing how it looks. While it used to be somewhere to look for specific content via a search engine, social media has changed all of that. Instead of browsing the web we're increasingly relying on our personalised news feeds in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to find something to entertain us - and that's very often a video.
It's partly a smartphone phenomenon. While commuting, short videos are much easier to watch than written webpages are to read. "Attention spans are decreasing and with so much information bombarding us at all times, video is the medium that enables the transition of large amounts of information quickly and succinctly," says Shah. "The more efficiently that video content can be indexed and searched by users, the more likely its use will continue to expand."
Nearly a million minutes of video content will cross the global network every second by 2018, according to Cisco's report "The Zettabyte Era", which also says streamed video will constitute 79 per cent of internet traffic. Hong Kong is blessed with reasonably fast network speeds, but such is the coming onslaught of video that no one should be complacent.
The future bottleneck isn't just video, but Ultra HD video, also known as 4k. This is video that's four times as detailed, with file sizes four times bigger. It's a format that was designed for movies, and for watching movies in the home on giant-sized Ultra HD televisions that one in five of us are forecast to own by 2018, Cisco says.
A 4k Blu-ray disc - expected to go on sale by the end of this year - will take the extra-large files quite easily, but few buy discs any more; this resolution revolution will be streamed. Unfortunately, the bit-rate for 4k video is around 18 Mbps, which is more than double that of HD video, and nine times larger than a regular YouTube video.
Although the streaming of 4k video to televisions will be a problem for the internet, the 4k revolution is expected to take place first on the smartphone and on social media. While few phones yet have 4k screens, many phones can already capture video in 4k quality, as can the latest GoPro devices. 4k videos can be staggeringly beautiful when used properly - perhaps for paragliding, cliff-jumping or gorgeous time-lapses - but that extra resolution is mostly being wasted on mundane point-of-view videos of golf, fishing or bike rides.
In the age of the personal, vacuous video, there's only one thing that can save us: the latest GoPro HERO4's battery lasts less than two hours. With video predicted to constitute 90 per cent of the internet by 2018, that short lifespan could be all that stands in the way of an upload overload.