Is the Internet Really Ready for Movie Streaming?

There’s been talk for years about the death of physical media for watching movies. Over the past year, that speculation and pontification has greatly intensified with the expansion of internet streaming services, especially Netflix. Proponents argue that soon, the very concept of using a physical disc to watch a movie will seem antiquated when instant-streaming services dominate the video market. But there’s still one big question that people seem to be ignoring in the midst of all this: Can the internet actually handle it?

A new article in TheStreet reveals what I found to be a shocking statistic. During peak usage hours, Netflix alone accounts for up to 20% of downstream internet traffic in North America. 20%! That’s just one company – one just barely on the cusp of rolling out its ambitious plans for moving to a streaming-only model. Now factor in all of its many bandwidth-hogging competitors such as Amazon, iTunes, HULU, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, VUDU, etc. Then think about everything else not movie- or TV-related that people use the internet for.

All of this video streaming requires massive amounts of data bandwidth. With that in mind, we must ask whether we have sufficient infrastructure in place to support these services as they continue to rapidly expand. The writer for TheStreet argues that we don’t. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that Netflix could crash the internet in Canada, or even portions of the U.S.

That viewpoint may be a little extreme or paranoid. However, it’s clear that the more we rely on the internet to supply us with these bandwidth-hogging entertainment options, the more strain we place on an aging infrastructure that can’t keep up. Many internet providers already place bandwidth caps on their customers’ accounts. Others charge heavily for high-volume users. This sort of problem is only liable to get worse in the short run.


  1. it is. it kind of reminds me when digital cable first came around. it was really cool to get all these channels and all it takes is one or two analog channels to make 20 digital channels. then you got the upgrade to digital and it was cool til one sunday and you go to watch a channel and it kept freezing up all day long then they fixed it then you ordered up a movie on pay-per-view on a friday night and your into it and the picture freezes up on you. cable got around to fixing it and digital works now. 12 years later. streaming is still in its infancy but in time it will work out.

  2. Rich87

    I’m sure internet providers will adjust to new technologies in order to handle the network load. As long as customers continue to pay for their service, companies will find new ways to expand their business model.

  3. The current infastructure of the internet cannot handle this. At all. You are talking about one company, with a few million subscribers, with a small percentage of that using streaming media. You have what, a few hundred thousand, possibly a million or so people hitting the streaming service at once? And its no where NEAR the quality of broadcast, much less Blu-Ray. You are talking upwards of about 4.5Mbps – with many people probably running much lower speeds than that. Taking up 20% of all Internet traffic. They are taking up more bandwidth than all P2P traffic put together. And ISPs have been trying to throttle P2P traffic for a while, because THEY don’t have the bandwidth or infastructure to deal with that much traffic.

    So, let’s say this streaming media thing REALLY takes off – I mean way bigger than it is now. You may have fiber to your house, that’s fine and dandy. Now imagine everyone with fiber to their house. Great, your ISP still has to connect up to the rest of the internet. Some of the largest internet pipes in the world are in the US between major cities – The largest pipe is an OC192 (that I know of) which is between New York, Washington and Chicago, and carries 10 Gbps of traffic. Most major metropolitian areas do not have that much bandwidth for the entire city (look at Orlando, for instance). You are talking about 2Gbps for the entire city of Orlando. So, lets say there are 200 people in Orlando and its surrounding area, streaming HD Netflix at 4.5Mbps. That is 900Mbps, or roughly half of the overall bandwidth going into all of Orlando. This is, of course, considering Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville are not using any bandwidth at that time.

    Does anyone see a problem here yet?

    Now, lets say 500 people in Orlando alone are streaming HD Netflix. You have suddenly oversaturated the line for all of Florida. Quality drops. Webpages for other people are slow. Facebook starts timing out…

    But I got a bit of good news for you. That map I sent you… That was just the bandwidth provided by MCIWorldcom. There are a few other companies that provide those nice big fat connections… The bad news… You basically have 26 providers of major bandwidth between major cities. Major bandwidth? Most are 45 Mbps, with some offering 155Mbps, a couple 620Mbps, and only a couple offering bandwidth over a gig. I mean, just because you may have a 40Mbps connection to your house from your ISP, they have to have a connection to the internet as well. I mean, if you are in Orlando again, and trying to pull something down from San Francisco, I can pretty much guarentee you are not pulling consistantly at 40Mbps. You are sharing that bandwidth with everyone else in the city with internet connections. And then there is the connections in between – Orlando gets its bandwidth from Atlanta who is sharing their bandwidth to New York, Chicago, LA and San Francisco, who while they may have the most bandwidth, is sharing with the rest of the world.

    I am sorry, but streaming media is NEVER going to replace Physical media until they come up with some killer compression scheme, or MAJORLY upgrade the capacity of the Internet.

  4. Patrick A Crone

    Given yesterdays Netflix streaming issues, I’m sure we still have a ways to go before it’s a perfect service. I don’t think I’ve watched a movie from begining to end without the streaming quality jumping back and forth.

  5. Reading people saying that streaming is going to take the place of physical media, and then people talk about how much bandwidth you have to your house make me realize how few people really understand how the Internet works.

    I just spent about a good half hour explaining why streaming is not going to work well right now. And my post seems to have disappeared. 🙁 Not sure what happened. Maybe it was so long its being held for moderation or something.

    Take a look at this – This is the bandwidth of the US. All your ISPs plug into one spot. You may have 45MBps FIOS to your house, but where does Verizon get their bandwidth from? This is called the backbone of the internet.

    The nice thing is, the map I just showed you is one of 26 major providers. Here are maps of the rest –

    Notice something? Most of the fiber cables stretched across the US have a TOTAL bandwidth that they handle of 45Mbps. A few cables handle 155Mbps, a couple of providers have over 600Mbps and only a couple have fiber cables across the US capable of carrying over 1Gbps.

    Lets look at Orlando. From the looks of it, Orlando, with all the different cables coming in, has a total Internet connection of roughly 2Gbps. Surprised? And that is not even dedicated to Orlando, that is being shared with Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, etc. Yes, roughly two GBps – for the entire city. Now, there are other bandwidth providers running 45Mbps lines to Tampa and Jacksonville, so we might get Orlando up to, oh, 2.5Gbps.

    But wait, I got 40Mbps to my house! Um, no, you have 45Mbps to your ISP, who has a line into one of these backbones. Let’s say you have FIOS in Orlando. 40Mbps to Verizon. In Orlando. Verizon plugs into the backbone. Lets say they have a 1GBps pipe into someplace there in Orlando. But then, to reach a server in San Francisco, you are then connecting through Jacksonville, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. And they are all sharing out to other people. Fios may have 10,000 subscribers in Orlando. I can pretty much guarentee you are not maintaining a 40Mbps connection consistantly with a server in San Francisco.

    So, back to our example city of Orlando. Lets say we have 1000 people in Orlando, all on FIOS, all streaming HD Netflix at 4.5Mbps. This doesn’t sound like much. But do the math. This equals up to 1000 people in Orlando alone consuming 4.5Gbps of bandwidth. And what did we say the bandwidth of Orlando was?


    Facebook is suddenly not responding. People can’t check their e-mail. Video conferencing results in extreamely bad quality and low framerates. Why?

    The chart posted earlier said that Netflix makes up 20% of all internet traffic. This is just a few hundred thousand people using the service at once. This is higher use than all P2P traffic combined, and we have already heard stories of ISPs trying to throttle them because of consumers taking up all the bandwidth….

    Does anyone see a problem here?

    Fiber optic cabling over an area as large as the US cost BILLIONS of dollars per cable. They lease this off to others to help offset the cost. But the major bandwidth is still only going between the Big Cities – San Francisco, LA, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. EVERYONE else gets a fraction of the bandwidth going to them.

    Next time you are sitting out in, say, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and wondering why Netflix keeps saying your Internet connection has slowed, and you are wondering why, think about how expensive it is to run a nice, shiny fiber cable from Cheyenne to San Francisco through those mountains and deserts, and then ask yourself if the city of Cheyenne, or even the entire population of Wyoming, has the millions, if not Billions, of dollars to offset the cost of a single cable run to San Francisco.

    And this is why the Internet is not ready for streaming media to every household in america, unless each ISP housed their own stash of movies in their areas. Until the US gets a MAJOR infastructure upgrade, or we house hundreds of servers in each city to serve up movies, streaming media CAN’T take over for physical media. The infastructure of the internet just cannot handle it.

  6. My comments, where I explain how the internet works, are awaiting moderation. I submitted two, as I did not realize my first was awaiting moderation. But there is very good reasons why streaming media will not replace physical media, and those are awaiting moderation.

    • Josh Zyber

      FYI, the issue was that you posted links. Comments with URLs go to a moderation queue for approval to make sure they’re not spam. I didn’t have a chance to check in and approve them until now.

  7. Col.Mayhem

    Streaming services still have a way to go on both sides, quantity and quality. I personally don’t think quality will ever see the likes of bluray level video bitrates or HD audio.

    Unless the U.S. gets ISPs with service/prices like that available in some of the premiere web countries, forget the global transition to streaming media.

    Dear Comcast, 150up/150down for $35 like my friends in S.Korea or GTFO. Oh yea, and put the monthly bandwidth limit where the sun don’t shine, mmkay?

  8. Holy crap William, you wrote a ton which I will gladly read up on.

    I don’t know whether digital media WILL take over physical media, but I will say that it should. I’d much prefer not having to clutter my apartment with discs 🙂

    • I like to write:-) I actually used to have a review site of my own, and am working on a book.

      My issue with this topic was that people think all they need is for Comcast or Verizon or someone to provide them greater bandwidth to their house. That is not the case at all.

      I know that at least Josh lives in Boston, and I think one of you guys live in LA, so you should get this idea.

      Imagine that the internet connection going to your house is like a fancy sports car. Speeds of 180MPH. Nice, you have a fast car!

      Where are you going to drive it? Well, on roads of course. The road from you house to the highway has a speedlimit of what, 20-40MPH. Okay, but now we get to the highway. Speed limit is, say, 60-75, depending on state and location. This highway was built, oh, 30-60 years ago. Your city has grown exponentially since then. You are not the only one on the highway. During rushhour, you are not doing 70. Shoot, you are lucky if you are doing 40. This is how the internet is most of the day.

      Now, lets say you get off on a country highway. Speed is still 70MPH. Its a two lane, winding highway. And right in front of you, you come up with a lane-hogging oversized load. He is doing 35. He won’t pull over – he argues he has every right to use the road as you. So, are you going to be able to drive at 70MPH?

      Now, lets put that oversized load on the major highway in your big city. This oversized load is streaming Netflix. Sure, you have a few on the road, people can go around. The speed of traffic does not slow down that much. But, what happens when we start increasing the number of Oversized Loads on the highways. During Rushhour? Lets say we have 20 oversized loads on that highway in a 2 or three mile stretch. What happens? The infastructure of the city falls apart. And you are wondering why you can’t drive your car at 180MPH like its advertised to go!

      This is the internet.

        • If you want to test this yourself, google Speedtest, and try one of the numerous speed test sites out there. Start with a site near your house. Your speeds are going to be very similar to what your ISP advertises. Then start hitting sites around the country, and around the world. Watch how your speed starts taking major hits depending on where you are. You are already being affected by the limitations of the infastructure on the internet.

  9. EM

    Internet streaming and other forms of video-on-demand hold the promise of whatever movie you want, whenever you want it; but they don’t and likely never will live up to it. As Dick’s “Leaving the Stream” articles prove, any on-demand availability can be revoked. I own Blu-rays and DVDs, I own CDs, I own books because there are works I really want to be sure to have access to. Internet streaming might be fine for exploring and evaluating—I haven’t jumped on that bandwagon, but I use rentals and library loans for the same purpose—but it doesn’t replace ownership of physical media.

  10. Vortex

    As others already said, quality. How many more years before the internet can handle movie streaming with high video bitrate and DTS HD/TruDolby audio that are on Blu-ray?

    It’s always amusing the advertisers keep advertising high quality HD and subscribers think partial HD quality is the best thing they ever seen.

    There’s another reason why I will stay with physical media. Ownership of movies I buy. Even you buy downloaded movies, it has DRM restrictions on how and where you can play the movies. Eventually, something will void the DRM and Hollywood will be happy to sell you another copy of the movie that you already “own”.

  11. tristan

    i live in canada and always get super top tier streaming from netflix. never slow and always the best connection. i love it

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