The unprecedented demand for streaming services to curtail bandwidth usage is a sign of how concerned authorities are that broadband networks will quickly become overloaded
The unprecedented demand for streaming services to curtail bandwidth usage is a sign of how concerned authorities are that broadband networks will quickly become overloaded © Getty Images

Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime, three of the world’s largest online video services, are taking the unprecedented step of reducing picture quality in Europe to ease pressure on broadband networks.

The internet groups are responding to calls by the European Commission and some European telecoms companies to prevent internet congestion, as more people work and take classes at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

YouTube is the world’s most popular video site with more than 2bn users tuning in every month, while Netflix had more than 160m viewers worldwide at the end of last year, including tens of millions across Europe.

“We are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the EU to standard definition,” YouTube said on Friday. It later added that traffic in the UK would also be curtailed, pointing to “ongoing conversations” with regulators including Ofcom. 

Hours earlier, Netflix said that “given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus”, it would temporarily throttle its data throughput too, meaning that some viewers would see a degradation in picture quality, in the hopes of reducing its traffic by a quarter.

Amazon on Friday added that it had “already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates whilst maintaining a quality streaming experience for our customers” in Europe. 

The unprecedented demand for streaming services to curtail their bandwidth usage is a sign of how concerned the authorities are that broadband networks will quickly become overloaded, as millions of office workers and school children turn to live video streaming at home.

Last week, Telecom Italia reported a 70 per cent surge in internet traffic over its landline network as Italy went into lockdown, saying a “big contribution” came from online games such as Fortnite. Spanish telecoms operators have warned of a “traffic explosion”. However, in the UK, BT has insisted that its network will be able to cope with the increased demand. 

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said this week that WhatsApp was seeing a sustained surge in usage that went “well beyond” seasonal peaks such as New Year’s Day. 

European Commissioner Thierry Breton met this week with Reed Hastings, Netflix chief executive, Alphabets chief Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki, who runs Google-owned YouTube.

Mr Breton welcomed their responses. “Millions of Europeans are adapting to social distancing measures thanks to digital platforms, helping them to telework, e-learn and entertain themselves,” he said.

“People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times. While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity,” YouTube said. “We will continue our work to minimise stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

Defaulting to standard definition, rather than the high definition that most viewers with good internet connections have become used to in recent years, could cut the data required to watch a video by more than half. However, YouTube viewers can still opt for HD quality. 

“Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” the company said. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

Amazon said: “We support the need for careful management of telecom services to ensure they can handle the increased internet demand with so many people now at home full-time due to COVID-19. Prime Video is working with local authorities and Internet Service Providers where needed to help mitigate any network congestion.” 

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