Netflix downscales content resolution to ease strain on EU networks

European Commission asks premier subscription video-on-demand service provider Netflix to lower quality of films to take strain from loaded EU networks

Despite the guarantees of European operators that their networks could cope with the added strain of millions of more people working from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, it would appear that politicians are beginning to worry about overuse as leading global video-on-demand service Netflix has acceded to European Commission requests to downgrade the quality of its output.

Thierry Breton, European commissioner for internal markets, revealed that he has been in contact with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to appeal for the video-on-demand service to end broadcasting content in high definition (HD) and switch to the substantially less network-intensive standard definition (SD).

In a tweet explaining the purpose of his actions, commissioner Breton said: “Teleworking and streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in a strain. To secure internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition internet when HD is not necessary.”

The continent’s operators have been divided as to what the effect on networks the added millions would have.

In Spain, in an unprecedented joint statement, the nation’s leading operators – Movistar, Orange, Vodafone, Grupo Masmovil and Grupo Euskaltel – revealed that both fixed and mobile telecommunications networks had experienced a traffic explosion in recent days as a result of the spread of coronavirus and the resulting measures and recommendations sending people home.

Even though they noted that the country was a European leader in terms of fibre optic infrastructure and had one of the best mobile networks in Europe, the Spanish operators appealed that rational and responsible use of the networks would allow all stakeholders – such as service providers, companies and individuals – to ensure that the nation has a quality communication ecosystem that was sustainable over time, in the face of a scenario of increased work and remote schooling that may last several weeks.

In the UK, the country’s leading public network providers BT and Virgin Media have both expressed confidence. The UK’s second largest broadband provider, Virgin Media, stressed that as more people may be working from home at the moment, it was important for users to know that its network could withstand any increased usage, including peaks throughout the day, in the evenings and at weekends. Virgin assured that as usage inevitably rose, its existing capacity would be able to take the strain, and that it was monitoring closely on network issues and was ready to make changes if needed.

For its part, BT added in a video on 13 March that its network peaks for traffic in the evening between 8.00pm and 9.00pm when network capacity reaches about 17Tbps (terabits per second). This, it said, was mainly driven by people streaming or downloading the latest software and latest updates for online and console games, adding that the peak is around 10 times what it saw from households over the day.

In all, BT was confident that it could accommodate people working from home, and their work-from-home traffic, on both its core and access networks provided by its Openreach division.

In what may be a cultural difference between the US and Europe, leading comms provider Verizon released data on 18 March showing that it was games rather than streaming video that had shown the greatest increase on its networks. The provider said that while video such as Netflix has seen a 12% week-on-week increase, gaming had spiked by 75%. Meanwhile, VPN usage had shot up 34%.

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