Video streaming habits affect electricity use

Video streaming consumes 3% of global electricity, a new study examines how streaming habits contribute.
17 May 2019


Streaming multiple videos in the same house, and streaming video for background noise are “unsustainable”, and contribute to significant energy use, new study has found...

Online video streaming currently consumes about 3% of total global electricity demand, and show no signs of decreasing.

Our personal habits, as well as the way companies encourage unrestricted data consumption are large contributing factors, according to Mike Hazas and Kelly Widdicks of Lancaster University, who authored a new study on this topic, published in the Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

When you’re using a computer, or a smartphone, it can be pretty obvious that you’re using electricity - you can see the device in front of you. However, you might not be aware that if you’re accessing the internet, you’re also consuming electricity elsewhere in the world, potentially a long way from your device.

“Unlike switching on a light, where there’s kind of a noticeable change... if you start streaming online video then that’s actually not quite as visible what all is involved in that, and what all consumes electricity,” explains Hazas.

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, and the transmission of that data.

Data centres are buildings full of computers and other devices which store the data that you access via the internet - when your device accesses 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.

“In 2017 CISCO said that internet video streaming formed 72% of global traffic,” explains Widdicks, “we wanted to have a look at streaming in everyday life and how this is growing.”

“One thing that doesn’t come across in these big what all that streaming is for. One of the things we were trying to do with this study is understand: what role does it play in everyday life,” elaborates Hazas.

The study recruited 20 participants across 9 households, and logged their internet data usage for a month, to determine which practices were the dominant factors in data consumption.

“Streaming is becoming the default way to watch television...multiple streams are now occurring in the home with people watching separate content maybe even in the same room...also some of the things they watch aren’t always meaningful in their everyday life, they might have been watching just to fall asleep, or to create background noise, and this wasn’t necessarily creating enjoyment,” summarizes Widdicks.

Hazas and Widdick’s feel that some aspects of the design of services like YouTube and Netflix were contributing factors, in particular “autoplay” features.

“The auto playing of video means people watch more just because the next episode is played,” explains Widdicks.

“Our participants would also point out that they would watch just as a distraction, or as trivial entertainment - these were from their accounts...this was particularly common with YouTube,” continues Hazas.

The authors were quick to point out that they weren’t trying to “demonise” streaming, given that it is important to some people, and provides accessibility. But they do think that, given so much of the associated electricity consumption is essentially invisible to the consumer, we should be having an active discussion about it.

“I think an important part of this whole debate is about what the internet should really be for. Streaming is currently around 3% of global electricity and perhaps that’s OK, because video streaming does a lot of good for people I would say, but should there be an upper bound?” Hazas asks.

“By 2030 streaming could easily be 10% of global electricity - is that OK? 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.”


How does this compare to traditional TV use, or even to having a regular TV on as background noise?

Probably quite similar, but the point made by the study authors is that where previously 1 group of people - .e.g. a family - would have watched 1 TV, now every individual in that family might, potentially, be watching a different item of streamed content, simultaneously. That's analogous to have multiple TVs on at the same time...

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