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'Game of Thrones' drives traffic spike for HBO -- and dings Netflix

A twice-yearly Internet traffic report provides a peek at how the season premiere of the hit fantasy series boosted viewership of HBO's online services.

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Though Netflix is always the top hog of Internet traffic in North America, HBO's streaming-video properties made a leap in traffic share the night of the latest "Game of Thrones" premiere. HBO

HBO's fledging online-only streaming service HBO Now made a dent -- a small one -- in Internet traffic when it launched, and it has "Game of Thrones" to thank.

The Season 5 premiere of "Game of Thrones" -- the network's most-watched program, with a rabid, gotta-see-it-now fan base -- was a high-profile trial of the trend to deliver television via the Internet. HBO Now, like Dish's Sling TV and CBS All Access, puts full TV programming online for $14.99 a month. As more consumers shift to watching video online, and more programmers offer their fare up on the Internet, the television industry is attuned to signs of how much traction these services are getting.

The twice-a-year "Global Internet Phenomena Report" from network equipment maker Sandvine took a special look at how traffic to HBO's online properties fared on April 12, the night of the fantasy series' season five premiere, just five days after the network launched HBO Now. That service is a direct-to-consumer version of what pay-TV subscribers already enjoyed in HBO Go -- an online repository to stream the premium cable network's movies, original shows and documentaries.

Though its full report on Internet traffic collected data in March, Sandvine took a snapshot of traffic mix from one fixed network located in the eastern US at 9:30 p.m. ET on April 12, midway through the "Game of Thrones" airing. HBO Now represented 0.7 percent of downstream traffic and HBO Go made up 3.4 percent. Together, that's more than quadruple their average levels, the company reported.

And while viewers were catching up with the adventures of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, Netflix traffic dipped. Its share of traffic on the network fell to 33.5 percent, three percentage points lower than the share Sandvine reported for March.

Sandvine cautioned not to take the figures as representative of North America, as the data represents one network on one day, and Internet traffic fluctuates. Sites like HBO Go, HBO Now and Hulu also tend to have greater fluctuations in traffic because the availability of their popular content varies depending on traditional television scheduling.

Overall in the full report, Netflix remained the clear leader on North American fixed networks (as opposed to mobile) during peak usage times, up slightly to 36.5 percent of downstream traffic, with YouTube again a distant second at 15.6 percent.

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Sandvine

Sling TV, a new service from pay-TV provider Dish Network that allows people to watch live television purely online for about $20 a month, accounted for less than percentage point of peak downstream traffic, but its service launched only a month before the data was collected.

The increased availability of video online, especially top television content like HBO, appears to continue to depress piracy. BitTorrent traffic again declined in fixed access bandwidth share and accounts for only 6.3 percent of total traffic in North America. In 2008, that share was 31 percent.

Christian Averill, BitTorrent's vice president of communications, noted the report elides a protocol change the company made that reduces its congestion during peak hours.

"What's key to understand is that BitTorrent traffic is not in decline," he said. "The protocol was updated in 2008 so that it yields to other traffic when the network is congested: during peak hours, for instance, when high quality streaming video services are competing for bandwidth. The behavior is unique to BitTorrent and serves as a template for how the rest of the Internet can work."

Elsewhere, Sandvine found that Facebook and Google now control more than 60 percent of total mobile traffic in Latin America.

Update, June 1 at 8 a.m. PT: With BitTorrent comment.

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