Last weekend marked a virtual Super Saturday: there was a record 24 hours for internet usage in the UK.
From 10.35am on Saturday 21 November to the same time the next day, TalkTalk customers used 41.2million gigabytes of data, driven largely by streaming, which has now spread across most multimedia platforms.
Not so long ago we would largely watch terrestrial television, buy physical copies of films we wanted to see or go to the cinema, and snap-up CDs or vinyl for our music fix. It’s worked wonders for decluttering homes.
But the other huge factor behind this surge in internet usage, according to TalkTalk – one of Britain’s biggest telecoms providers – has been the launch of four new gaming consoles.
This time around, there are two versions of the Microsoft Xbox and two versions of the Sony PlayStation, which gamers have been incredibly excited for during 2020.
With the launch of both this month, gamers have had the choice of buying either console with a digital-only mode. That is, you can’t buy physical games – they can only be downloaded onto the console, which comes with a cheaper price tag.
While this exclusive data has been given to the Consumer Trends column and doesn’t include other major telecoms providers, they are likely to have seen a similar surge.
This week, we take a look at the streaming trend and how our internet infrastructure will cope with it.
Super Saturday: The perfect storm
Last Saturday, TalkTalk saw a record 24 hours of internet usage according, its managing director of technology Gary Steen tells me.
The perfect storm was created by the new Playstation 5 launch two days earlier, with gamers downloading software and games, along with the current lockdown seeing more people watching more streamed television and film content.
Internet usage was a third higher compared to the Saturday before (14 November), a third compared to the Sunday before and was up 58 per cent compared to some Saturdays in the summer.
Gary also reveals there is an internet rush hour – or manic five minutes – with 9.10-9.15pm the most likely time to see a surge in usage.
And while the ‘switching on the kettle’ effect is well documented, for instance in the advert break for Coronation Street, this is being replaced by an internet spike as more people use the time to surf the web on their smartphones instead.
Gaming: Downloading games and updates
With the Playstation 5 having a digital-only edition for the first time, there was a spike as gamers unboxed the console and downloaded games – including Call of Duty.
This popular title requires a hefty 130gb download for all of the maps and content, and with many people downloading it on the same day, it contributed to virtual Super Saturday.
Gary explains that these downloads, and software updates, are what cause the biggest surges in traffic – and that actually gaming with others online pales in comparison.
Instead, what gamers want is low latency – that is, the amount of time it takes for the server to digest the information in real-time with others around the globe.
While no longer a gamer – other than the odd precious spare hour here and there spent playing a game that has been with me since primary school, Football Manager – I have plenty of friends of similar age who were incredibly excited to get their new consoles.
‘It’s like playing your own movie now, some of these games,’ one friend explains to me. ‘I see playing it for an hour or two here or there akin to watching a film. It’s relaxing and enjoyable.’
The gaming arena has changed since I was a teenager thanks to the internet. My friend is giving me his old PS4 to try.
I cannot imagine getting the time to load it up, let alone download games, updates and log-in to play others online. But it’s safe to say plenty of other ‘older’ gamers will be glued to their screens in the coming months.
TV and film: Streaming booms in lockdown
More than 13million households in Britain now have at least one paid-for streaming subscription, according to data from comparison site Finder – or more than half, up 5.2 per cent on the end of 2019.
Meanwhile, a quarter are signed-up to more than two. As of the first three months of the year, Netflix was the most popular, followed by Amazon Prime and Now TV. Ofcom says Disney+ has knocked Now TV into fourth place.
During April, the first full month of the original lockdown, households typically spent six hours and 25 minutes each day watching TV and online video content, according to Ofcom. This is a total of 45 hours a week – a rise on a third last year.
The biggest driver behind this was streaming services. People spend twice as much time watching Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like, and the trend was even higher among under 34s.
It estimates that 12million adopted a new video streaming service during lockdown, with a quarter of these using one for the first time.
Meanwhile, a third of 55-to 64-year-olds, and 15 per cent of over-65s used subscription streaming services in the early weeks of lockdown – up from 25 and 12 per cent respectively before the pandemic.
Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s strategy and research group director, says: ‘UK broadcasters face a tough advertising market, production challenges and financial uncertainty.
‘So, they need to keep demonstrating that value in the face of intense competition from streaming services.’ It is likely that the streaming habit is here to stay.
The Ofgem data suggests our adoption of streaming services is likely to continue. The overwhelming majority who had signed up to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ said they plan to keep their subscriptions in the months ahead.
Similarly, more than half of people say they will continue to spend the same amount of time watching streamed content in future as they did during lockdown.
Nearly three years ago, I argued that the revolution wouldn’t be televised, it would be streamed – and that seems to be coming true, with more even catching up with programmes on BBC iPlayer, for example, rather than watching live.
And as an example of just how spoiled we are: I cancelled Netlix last month for the first time in years (it has send me a dozen emails since like a nagging ex asking to come back).
The reasons? Well, firstly, I was finding myself watching more documentaries and film on Amazon Prime. Then there have been better programmes on ‘regular’ television. And Now TV hooked me in for boxsets – including Succession for a bargain £1.99 for six months.
I can’t juggle that many subscriptions at one time – I had to let one of them down…
How does the network cope?
A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes. 1 terabyte – typically what people use for external storage for photos and the like – is 1,000 gigabytes.
The total used in that 24 hour period last weekend was 41,150,106gb of data. This is the equivalent of nearly 14million hours of HD video or 12billion MP3 files per day.
According to Gary, the British network is more than capable with keeping up with the surge in internet use for the foreseeable.
He also explains that they plan two to three years ahead, to look at how capacity needs to be increased to keep up.
I ask whether Netflix and Sony, and the other companies that are making us ever more reliant on the internet and speedier connections, foot some of the bill. He replies that they supply equipment which helps the process.
For example, when Netflix launches a new film, instead of streaming it from Europe or from the US, the film will be banked somewhere in the UK to keep up with the demand and keep the customer experience good.
As our thirst for more and faster streaming continues to grow, he believes TalkTalk and the rest will be able to keep up – and he believes more records are set to be broken in the coming months, especially once all of those new Xbox and PlayStation consoles are unwrapped at Christmas.