Facebook cuts video bitrates to ease internet strain

Facebook follows Amazon, Netflix and YouTube in slashing the quality of internet streams to ease network strain during the coronavirus lockdown

  • The network is reducing the video quality on Facebook and Instagram in Europe 
  • It means videos on the social network will use less data but be of a worse quality 
  • The move follows similar measures from YouTube, Amazon and Netflix last week
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Facebook has become the latest service to lower video quality to help prevent internet congestion during the coronavirus lockdown.

The social media giant said it would temporarily reduce the bit rates quality of content on Facebook and Instagram in Europe.

Bit rate – the amount of data streamed per second when watching a video online – directly affects video quality, with a high bit rate giving a smooth HD picture. 

Streaming giants Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube confirmed similar moves to slash streaming quality on its videos last week.

The decision follows concerns raised about the ability of internet networks to handle increases in user traffic, as millions stay at home during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Facebook, which has increasingly turned to live streaming and other video content, will be cutting bit rates as more people look to the internet to keep themselves occupied 

‘To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe,’ a Facebook spokesman said.

‘We are committed to working with our partners to manage any bandwidth constraints during this period of heavy demand, while also ensuring people are able to remain connected using Facebook apps and services during the COVID-19 pandemic.’ 

YouTube followed Netflix in slashing video stream quality across Europe to stop the internet collapsing under the unprecedented usage due to the COVID-19 crisis 

Netflix said last Thursday said that it would be reducing bit rates across all its streams in Europe for 30 days, which should cut its traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent. 


A bit rate is the number of bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time.

A bit (short for binary digit) is the smallest unit of data in a computer.

Bit rate control corresponds to video quality when streaming videos.

The higher the bit rate, the better the quality, while a lower bit rate has a weaker quality – although it puts less of a strain on a network. 

The bit rate is quantified using the prefixes ‘kilo’ (Kbps), ‘mega’ (Mbps), ‘giga’ (1 Gbps) or ‘tera’ (Tbps) to give a bit reading per second. 

High-quality web video often runs at about 2 Mbps.

Amazon Prime followed suit on Friday, saying it is working with local authorities and internet service providers where needed to help mitigate any network congestion. 

YouTube said that so far it had only seen a few usage peaks – with usage instead being over longer hours than normal – but had decided to act nevertheless in order to minimise stress on the system.  

The move by all four platforms to do so follows the recommendation of EU industry chief Thierry Breton that streaming services temporarily lower their video quality. 

Breton wants the internet to be able to cope with crucial services, among which are those that support healthcare and online learning as a substitute for closed schools, as opposed to watching films and playing games. 

Last week, a video game expert and columnist urged video game players to reduce the time they spend playing games online during working hours to reduce the network strain – a suggestion that provoked outraged responses from gamers on social media. 

Online gamers who are trying to while away the hours in self-isolation during the day from Monday to Friday could be frustrating fellow network users who are trying to get work done

‘While video streaming services, such as Netflix and YouTube, are committed to reducing their digital footprint during the coronavirus crisis, gaming is perhaps the biggest threat to internet bandwidth in the next few months,’ said UK-based video expert Rik Henderson.  

‘Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and the like will, therefore, no doubt become even more popular as isolation continues.

‘But we do all need to be aware of the impact on our country’s network infrastructure and perhaps game at more reasonable times, in the evening, say, in order to avoid any impact on important services and work, as consumer internet connections are less robust than the usual business lines.’  

As part of other measures to respond to coronavirus, Facebook has also recently announced the launch of a new Coronavirus Information Centre in the UK.

This will be promoted at the top of people’s News Feeds and direct them to the latest updates and guidance from the NHS and the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

‘At this challenging and unprecedented time, we’re committed to doing everything we can to help people using our platforms stay safe, informed and connected,’ said Steve Hatch, Facebook’s vice president for northern Europe. 

‘Our Coronavirus Information Centre will connect people to latest guidance from the NHS as well as posts about prevention and social distancing actions we can all take to keep our family and community safe.

‘This builds on our work over the last month pointing people to NHS advice whenever they search for coronavirus on Facebook or click on a hashtag on Instagram.’    

Facebook has also been tackling COVID-19 by limiting misinformation and harmful content on its site, partly by banning ads ‘intended to create panic’ or take advantage of the pandemic to boost sales. 

Social media has been criticised for failing to remove disinformation linked to the pandemic, with wide-ranging reports of accounts posting false treatments for the illness as well as exploitative advertising.

The government and the NHS have warned the public to be aware of misleading information, and platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter are now placing more official information prominently on their services.  

The social network is giving WHO as many free ads as it needs in a bid to get accurate health information to users of the platform as clearly as possible.  

Facebook also revealed that more than one million people on the platform in the UK have now joined more than 1,000 COVID-19-related local community support groups, offering help and assistance to those around them.    


What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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