Netflix upload traffic mysteriously grows to 9.5% of all upstream bandwidth use in North America: This could negatively affect 4K streaming

by on December 17, 2014

by Stephan Jukic – December 17, 2014

Netflix is truly an internet entertainment giant. During peak entertainment viewing hours, the company’s steams make up a full third of all the bits transmitted to internet users throughout North America who use fixed connections like cable, DSL, fiber or satellite internet connectivity. The one exception to this is actually the cellular internet network, where not nearly as much content streaming from the company is going on for reasons of practicality.

Furthermore, Netflix users also send a huge amount of data back upstream as it turns out. According to a recent Internet usage report by researchers at consumer bandwidth product maker Sandvine, the total Netflix take of upsteam traffic during peak hours is also a very sizeable 9.8% of all North American upstream traffic over the same fixed internet services mentioned above.

This is second only to the traffic generated by BitTorrent, at 25.49%.

Sandvine defines these peak hours as occurring at roughly 7 to 11pm each evening, in other words, when network use is within 95% of its total daily maximum.

What’s interesting about the report isn’t so much that Netflix is a major hog of both upload and download traffic, this is something that’s already been well known and established for some time. Instead, what does call attention is the odd fact that the upload quantity has increased in the newest measurements while downloads have remained relatively stable.

And the upload increase is quite substantial. Since the last measurement earlier in the year, in which it was at 6.44%, it has increased by more than a third while downloads have only gone up by a fraction of a percent from 34.21 to 34.89% in that same timeframe.

Of course, this change could also be temporary since it has fluctuated in past instances during previous years.

Overall, download traffic is the much heavier load on bandwidth than upload traffic and while users in the U.S uploaded an average of 8.5GB during the latest Sandvine measurement, total downloads in the same time averaged about 48.9GB.

As for the question of how users of Netflix upload so much data, well the answer lies in what are called ACK packets. These are data networking signals passed from users connected machines as a means of signifying acknowledgement of received data (Netflix content in this case).

This process occurs every time that Netflix connects client devices to its own servers and the client system then sends an ACK packet back to recognize the connection.

What’s problematic about the mysterious uptick in ACK related upstream bandwidth usage on the part of Netflix subscribers devices is that the sheer number of packets sent is capable of downgrading the overall quality of the download stream through interference. This means that the TCP streams carrying users’ video content that comes with a Netflix subscription then suffer a downgrade in the quality of their transmission.

Netflix users could experience an overall decline in quality of streaming content services if the upstream traffic spike continues to grow

Netflix users could experience an overall decline in quality of streaming content services if the upstream traffic spike continues to grow

This can affect even HD content traffic in a way that possibly ruins the viewing experience for users, but for those who are also subscribing to the full Netflix package of services which includes 4K video content, the downgrade in service quality can be even more drastic. Since 4K streams often operate with a much thinner available margin of extra internet bandwidth due to their sheer size, their growing popularity could be negatively affected by the Netflix upload increase if it continues at the same time as 4K streams also expand in scope.

We’ll have to wait and see how the overall quality of Netflix streams is affected and whether or not the upload traffic increase keeps growing. The expanding popularity of North American Netflix 4K streams might face some unique obstacles in this regard.

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