No, cord cutting will not break the internet

Cable TV defenders dredge up an old, debunked theory to argue the downside of streaming video.

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File this one under “unexpected defenses of cable TV.” A couple of recent opinion pieces suggest that cord cutting is a threat to the internet as we know it.

The theory goes like this: As more people abandon cable and satellite TV for streaming services like Netflix, demand for more internet bandwidth will skyrocket, and our poor internet infrastructure won’t be able to keep up. Here’s what Shira Ovide of Bloomberg View describes as a “crucial issue” that not enough industry people are talking about:

Traditionally, the cable and telecom companies that are responsible for internet networks don’t have a great track record of making infrastructure investments, which often don’t result in decent financial returns. Hopes that new mobile technology will patch holes or replace creaky broadband aren’t realistic for all but a handful of circumstances.

The best hope for our internet infrastructure is that online video watching by those darn millennials will increase slowly and steadily rather than surge in coming years. Because if it does surge, the internet might have a meltdown.

And here’s Jennifer Walpole of American Genius with a similar conclusion:

Is there any need to deactivate your Netflix account and stop streaming your favorite shows? Of course not, but it is something to consider when you hear about how many people are weighing whether or not to cut ties with their providers and go completely online; what will happen when there isn’t enough bandwidth for everyone?

While the concern seems reasonable on its face, it’s ultimately a lot like the bogus claims that cord cutting won’t save you money (it almost certainly will), or that cord cutting will ruin television (it most definitely hasn’t). That is to say, the assertion crumbles under scrutiny.

Besides, this theory was debunked years ago.

The “exaflood” that wasn’t

The streaming video brownout theory dates back to at least 2009, when various network technology vendors, think tanks, and ISP lobbyists started floating the idea that we were quickly running out of bandwidth thanks to Netflix and YouTube. Without industry-friendly policy that embraces data caps and squashes net neutrality, they implied, the internet would become unusable.

Part of the problem with the so-called “exaflood” theory is that it assumed the absolute worst case scenario in terms of how much bandwidth people would need. In reality, internet traffic growth has been much more modest than what the doomsday prophets predicted.

In the meantime, internet providers managed to keep pace with the times. Average U.S. internet connection speeds tripled from 2011 to 2014, according to a FCC report from last year, and Speedtest reported in June 2016 that average download speeds rose by 42 percent year-over-year, topping 50Mbps for the first time. Although the United States is by no means a leader in internet performance—and the cable and telecom industry is certainly not beloved by its customers—the rise in available internet speeds wouldn’t be feasible if the infrastructure couldn’t support more traffic.

The online video industry has also upgraded its technologies and methods to meet demand. Netflix, for instance, employs its own content delivery network, scattering servers around the world and working directly with internet providers to make streaming faster and more reliable. An emerging technology called open caching can provide similar benefits to other online video providers. New compression algorithms (from Netflix and others) also help reduce data consumption without a noticeable sacrifice in quality.

Because of these improvements, streaming video has been steadily displacing cable TV without incident. A recent survey by Leichtman Research Group found that 54 percent of U.S. households have Netflix—that’s now slightly more than the percentage of homes with a DVR—and third-party estimates show that the average subscriber watches two hours of Netflix per day. If the rise of streaming video threatens to break the internet, one might wonder why it hasn’t happened by now.

Real problems, not mythical ones

None of this is to say that delivering video over the internet is without challenges.

Compared to cable, streaming video involves more potential points of failure, leading to reliability problems when providers don’t put enough redundancy in their systems. Streaming video also might not match the quality of cable, as providers look to maintain reliability at minimal traffic delivery costs. But these issues are the result of business decisions by streaming video providers, not flaws in the internet infrastructure.

Likewise, home internet data caps and overage fees can make cord cutting uneconomical for some people, especially with the rise of 4K HDR video. But by internet providers’ own admission, these caps have nothing to do with curbing network congestion. The real goal is to squeeze heavy data users for greater profit.

And, in fairness to Bloomberg View’s Ovide, internet providers don’t have a clean record when it comes to broadband investment. While internet speeds overall are improving, there have been cases where providers fail to deliver on investments they promised in exchange for subsidies and tax cuts, along with incidents of alleged false advertising for home broadband speeds that weren’t technologically possible. Without more competition or stronger regulation, this type of dysfunction will continue. But this is not a new problem in America, and so far it hasn’t impeded the growth of streaming video in any measurable way.

As for the future, It’s easy to dream up some nightmare scenario where streaming video destroys cable TV overnight and takes down the internet with it. But what’s actually happening is a manageable shift in viewing habits, supported by a steady drumbeat of technological improvements. Without any real evidence to prove otherwise, claims that cord cutting threatens the internet are nothing but ill-informed fearmongering.

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