What Squid Game does to your network, and why you should care (or not)
Okay, hands up, who had ‘South Korean survival drama where people get murdered for losing at children’s games’ in the most-watched Netflix show sweepstakes?
When Netflix first launched Squid Game, few would have guessed it would become the streaming giant’s most popular launch ever. More than 100 million viewers globally have watched the dystopian show, in which a group of indebted people compete for a gargantuan jackpot, but this success has also reignited a long-standing debate in the telecoms industry.
Hits such as Squid Game have made Netflix the most successful streaming service in South Korea (and plenty of other places). But this success has also resulted in SK Broadband – part of SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile operator – suing Netflix to cover the cost of the surge in network traffic.
Streaming video content obviously has an impact on internet networks, and streamers demand reliable connectivity to avoid being faced with the dreaded buffering wheel. When more people are streaming at once, the strain placed on networks to deliver reliable quality to everyone increases. Think of it like cars on a motorway; more people driving at the same time means traffic moves slower, so to keep everyone happy you might need to make the road wider by adding another lane.
SK Broadband says the traffic that Netflix generates on its network surged to 1.2 trillion bits of data processed per second in September, the month of Squid Game’s release. This constitutes a 24-fold increase over three years. It claims it has had to upgrade its network twice to accommodate the traffic surge caused by the show, and its lawsuit is now prompting the question of whether streaming companies should pay a congestion charge for hit shows. This question forms part of the wider debate on net neutrality.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the internet is treated fairly – or, in other words, is seen as neutral. It is the principle that you have equal access to all (legal) content on the internet, and your broadband provider doesn’t dictate what you can see or do.
Net neutrality laws therefore squash the potential for internet ‘fast lanes’, that would allow traffic from certain sites to get from A to B in a dedicated path, quicker than other traffic. This means internet service providers, like SK Broadband, can’t charge certain providers, like Netflix, extra to cover the bandwidth they need or give them their own lane on the motorway. Netflix’s internet traffic has to be treated the same as every other content provider, no matter how big or small.
What are the pros and cons?
In a nutshell, services providers argue that if they were able to charge the likes of Netflix or Facebook or Google or other drivers of bandwidth more, they could reinvest those funds into upgrading networks, extending availability to more rural areas, and even on developing innovative new services. There is also an argument that if the cost of providing connectivity to customers was weighted towards those that drive the most traffic down the pipe, service providers could actually make access to certain sites – like healthcare or education resources – free to everyone, whether they had a contract or not.
Counter arguments in favour of net neutrality legislation argue that if bigger players were paying bigger bucks, they would demand dedicated bandwidth which could hamper competition against smaller names. This argument becomes more complicated in markets where broadband providers also offer content services. In the UK for example, BT could in theory make streaming on the BT Sport app quicker, and streaming on the Sky Go app slower for its broadband customers, influencing the sports broadcasting market in its favour.
Why should I care?
Essentially, because us mere customers risk being caught in the crossfire.
If things stay ‘neutral’ as they are, and broadband providers struggle to upgrade networks to keep pace with demand, we could end up with more regular network outages (or buffering wheels), the cost of broadband going up, or a combination of both.
If things change, and content providers are forced to pay more for the traffic they generate, they could then pass that cost on to us, which in basic terms means your Netflix subscription could become more expensive.
The EU adopted net neutrality legislation in 2015, which obviously at the time applied to the UK as well. There haven’t been discussions yet about that changing, and generally speaking ‘net neutrality’ is an American term that hasn’t really crossed the pond, though Brexit does open up the possibility of debate more than before. Ofcom announced a review of net neutrality earlier this year, so conversations are happening, but as with all regulatory changes they will take a while to result in anything concrete.
Should I really care though?
Well, sure, in the grand scheme of things there are plenty of other things to worry about right now. Who cares how fast or expensive your Netflix is if your house is underwater! But, in isolation, is it worth worrying about right now?
The debates around net neutrality will rumble on for years, long after Squid Game series 14 has ‘broken the internet’ again. In reality, it’s unlikely anything will change. As much as connectivity providers can argue Netflix et. al should pay more, they know that deep down most people only have a high-speed broadband connection in the first place so they can access services like Netflix, or online gaming. In other words, the service providers need the content players, more than the content players need them.
It’s a debate worth keeping an eye on, because as governments change there is always the possibility this issue could gather steam. In the meantime, you could always forget about the internet and just go outside – anyone fancy a game of Red Light, Green Light?