The YouTube mobile app still limits video quality to 480p in India, even after 3 months of restrictions

The YouTube mobile app still limits video quality to 480p in India, even after 3 months of restrictions

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COVID-19 has affected this year in a lot of ways, and we cannot even begin to assess the damage the pandemic has done at large. Even within the limited and narrow scope of smartphones and the related tech industry, the pandemic has made everyone rethink whether physical launch events are still needed when online-only events can serve as decent alternatives. The focus has shifted from physical experiences to digital experiences and combined with the health advisories issued because of the pandemic that advises people to stay indoors, we have witnessed a surge in online activity. Consequently, Internet service companies took pre-emptive steps to ensure that their infrastructure does not collapse—for instance, YouTube decided to restrict maximum video streaming quality to 480p in India in a move that many deemed to be temporary.

But three months have passed since YouTube’s decision. What was thought to be a temporary move in the greater public interest has now seemingly become a part of the “new normal”.

To recap, the official YouTube app for Android and iOS began restricting the maximum video playback quality to 480p back in late March 2020. These restrictions come into play even on videos that were uploaded in resolutions as high as 4K and which were previously playable at these qualities. YouTube did not communicate its decision initially, but other websites quote that YouTube has  “temporarily removed the option for users to manually select a resolution above 480p on mobile phones in India.” Some viewers initially blamed creators for uploading videos in 480p Standard Definition, but everyone soon realized that it was a platform-wide restriction, but specifically for India.

The maximum video quality limit was put in place regardless of your Internet connection and quality, so it did not matter whether you are on mobile data (4G LTE) or on Wi-Fi connected through a fiber line. However, desktop users remain unaffected, and the same videos actually started off at a decently high 1080p by default on the same network. Further complicating the issue is the fact that even YouTube Premium users are affected! These are users that are actively paying YouTube for 480p streaming in 2020 for more than 3 months now!

Even at that point in time, we felt that the step down to a maximum ceiling of 480p was a little too harsh. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to several unprecedented situations, and we do understand that the step was taken in the greater interest of the public. A step down does alleviate what is deemed to be an avoidable load on Internet infrastructure, especially at a time when resources were getting stretched amidst the prevailing uncertainty. But still, 480p was too harsh of a downgrade to be considered a feasible maximum for a pleasant user experience, and I feel that 720p would have been a more acceptable middle-ground. But for the greater good, this temporary change was accepted without much protest.

However, it has been more than 3 months since the maximum quality restriction of 480p for YouTube streaming was rolled out. One cannot say that COVID-19 is under control—far from it—but for economic reasons, businesses have resumed activities with health guidelines in place. The nationwide lockdown that was announced in India back at the time of YouTube’s decision has been modified to become much more micromanaged in nature, focusing on districts and hotspots instead of blanketing the entire nation. Because of the relaxations, people do not have as much free time as they did back when the strict lockdown was freshly imposed. All the while, YouTube’s 480p restriction has continued in place without any communication from the company on a relaxation.

What complicates matters is that this restriction is specifically in India and has been India-only. What YouTube offered the rest of the world was a change in default behavior, defaulting videos to 480p but still retaining the option to choose a higher quality on a per-video basis. India does not get this option, and the only option available for streaming above 480p is to ditch the official mobile apps and explore other alternatives.

According to a report, YouTube had 265 million monthly active users in India as of February 2020. This is indeed a huge number, but it pales in comparison to the 2 billion monthly active users across the world. According to Alexa statistics for the last month, the U.S. is the leading source of YouTube traffic, contributing over 15% while India comes in second at 9% followed by Japan at 5%.

India’s presence as one of the top consumers does not go unnoticed, but I think it is unfair to single out only this country for a complete video quality restriction. YouTube could have uniformly applied the same maximum resolution restrictions in India as it did for the rest of the world, defaulting to 480p and letting users retain the option of increasing the quality. But as we know, that hasn’t been the case.

An argument can be made that India’s Internet infrastructure is not comparable to that of the USA or Japan, and that is true. However, YouTube has also failed to communicate how long these restrictions will continue to apply. There won’t be an overnight upgrade to India’s Internet infrastructure, and the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay. So do we just grow accustomed to the pixelated lower quality for as long as the pandemic sticks around? There is no gameplan visible from YouTube on this end, despite the economy itself being restarted and people slowly getting back to work. According to a report from Medianama in May 2020, the spike in Internet traffic in India during the nationwide lockdown was less than expected at just 15%, and outdoor activities have been relaxed even further in June in India. Medianama‘s report further drives home the point that the restriction was not needed even during the initial days of India’s lockdown, which extrapolates into them being even more useless at this moment.

And it wasn’t just YouTube. Netflix had also downgraded its highest available bitrate, but this restriction was applied across the world. Netflix’s restriction was lifted in Europe sometime in May, and it was recently lifted in India as well. Even though the restrictions lasted longer for India, at least Netflix applied the cap uniformly and orchestrated the downgrade intelligently. YouTube’s blanket 480p video restriction just feels lazy in comparison, and the lack of communication has transformed YouTube’s temporary move into an indefinite stream of pixelated 480p content on our phones that the rest of the world can enjoy in up to 4K!

So to the good people at YouTube: Please consider this article as a collective rant from the Indian populace. It is absolutely no fun watching the latest Cyberpunk 2077 trailer in 480p while the rest of the world watches it in glorious 4K. Ideally, we hope that the restrictions are lifted up completely. But in case there are reasons that elude us, please at least consider upgrading us to 720p—that shouldn’t be a problem since you don’t even call it HD anymore. Otherwise, people will turn to alternatives and workarounds such as browsing YouTube through Chrome on mobile, using unofficial apps like NewPipe, or watching every video on desktop. None of these solutions are ideal and none of them are for the population en masse, so please let the solution come from you.