Video streaming electricity demand grows

Video streaming consumes 3% of global electricity, a new study examines how this is changing.
19 May 2019

Interview with 

Mike Hazas & Kelly Widdicks, Lancaster University


Most people are blissfully unaware that whenever they access the internet, they’re actually using a considerable amount of electricity. In fact the greenhouse gas emissions released to power the Internet are greater than the emissions from the entire world airline industry. And, according to a new report, this energy consumption is growing alarmingly fast, chiefly owing to one particular behaviour, which is eclipsing all other Internet traffic: people streaming video and movies. Ben McAllister has been crunching the numbers...

Ben - Information technology is an enormous part of our every day lives. All the different aspects of IT: devices, data transmission, manufacturing, etc., now comprise roughly 9 to 10% of global electricity demand. When you are using a computer or a smartphone it can be pretty obvious that you're using electricity; you can see the device, it's on in front of you. However, you may not be aware that if you are accessing the internet, you're also burning a bunch of electricity in other places in the world far removed from your device. When your computer or smart TV is streaming video from the internet, for example, only about half of the total energy consumed goes into the manufacturing and powering of the device. The other half of the electricity is burnt in data centres, buildings full of computers and other devices which store the data that you can access via the internet. When your device accesses that data, the computers in the data centre transmit it through the various cables, towers and networks that comprise the internet. All of that requires electricity.

Mike Hazas and Kelly Widdicks research this topic at Lancaster University...

Mike - Unlike switching on a light and you can see where energy might be being consumed, people start streaming online video then that's not quite as visible.

Kelly - Yeah, exactly. And that's what's come up with our studies really is that when we talked to our participants about energy consumption associated with their devices they always think about charging, whereas obviously, we're coming from an internet demand perspective.

Ben - This invisible energy consumption isn't the same for all devices. Mobile devices, for example, are much more efficient at using energy locally so when you stream video on your phone only about 5% of the total energy consumed goes into powering the phone, the rest of it is spent in the data transmission. I mentioned video streaming specifically and there's a good reason for that. The latest figures from data providers such as Cisco say that now roughly 70% of all data traffic is video streaming via services such as Netflix and YouTube. When you do the maths and put all of this together to figure out how much of the world's electricity demand is consumed just by video streaming...

Mike - It's around 3% of global electricity.

Ben - Just in video streaming. And all signs point to that growing over time. The current share of global electricity consumed by IT is about 10%, but projections have that number nearly doubling by 2030...

Mike - There's still a lot of room to grow. Digital devices obviously take up a lot of attention and time, but they continually find ways to creep into more areas of everyday life. It's not just the television in the living room anymore, it's the phone in your pocket, the laptop switched on, the home server, the home Wi-Fi router, things like that.

Ben - Video streaming has the potential to consume a massive proportion of the world’s electricity going forward, and for the most part it's completely unknown to consumers. Mike and Kelly wanted to look into what was happening on an individual level to drive this massive consumption of data...

Kelly - We were recruited 20 participants across 9 households in the UK, and we carried out qualitative interviews with each of these participants and then deployed routers into their homes which logged all their internet use for a month. And then we conducted extra qualitative interviews with each of the participants after this logging period and that's when we found that the streaming for our households was also a large portion of traffic.

Ben - And they found some interesting things about people's video streaming habits...

Mike - One thing that doesn't come across in these big statistics like from Sandvine and Cisco and Ericsson about the growth of video and things is what all that streaming is for.

Kelly - Streaming is becoming the default way to watch television, with more traditional forms of watching such as broadcast access and DVDs becoming more obsolete. Multiple streams are now occurring in the home with people watching separate content maybe even in the same room, but streaming separate content away from each other. Also some of the things that they watch aren't always meaningful in their everyday lives so they might have just been watching just to fall asleep or just trying to create background noise, and this wasn't always creating enjoyment. So the auto playing of video means people watch more because the next episode's played and that puts more strain on the network operators.

Mike - And our participants would also point out that they would watch just as a distraction or as trivial entertainment and these were from their accounts, and this was particularly common with YouTube.

Ben - It looks like these nine households are representative, a large portion of our massive video streaming data consumption could be a result of the multi-streaming and background streaming like Kelly mentioned. They were quick to point out however that they weren't trying to blame consumers...

Kelly - We're not trying to demonise streaming. It's very important to some people and it will provide accessibility to others.

Ben - But they do think that given so much of this electricity consumption is, essentially, invisible to the consumer, we should be having an active discussion about it...

Mike - I think an important part of all this whole debate is about what the internet should really be for. So we could say streaming's currently around 3% of global electricity, and perhaps that's okay. Video streaming does a lot of good for people I would say, but should there be an upper bound. So by 2030 streaming could easily be 10% of global electricity so is that okay, or is 20% an acceptable limit? It's important to have an open debate about this rather than just let things develop more organically driven by service providers and, in some cases, advertising revenue.


Add a comment