September 29, 2020

Netflix, Disney Throttle Video Streams In Europe To Handle COVID-19 Internet Strain

Netflix, Disney, YouTube, and Instagram have all announced they’re temporarily throttling their video streams in Europe to help mitigate the bandwidth strain created by COVID-19, as millions hunker down to slow the spread of the pandemic. In a blog post, Netflix stated the company was throttling back the streaming quality of its titles by around 25% for 30 days after European regulators asked the company to do so to handle the pandemic-driven bandwidth surge:

“We immediately developed, tested and deployed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on these networks by 25% – starting with Italy and Spain, which were experiencing the biggest impact. Within 48 hours, we’d hit that goal and we’re now deploying this across the rest of Europe and the UK.”

Netflix had already integrated settings that let users on slower or capped broadband plans manage their bit rate and stream quality. According to the company, the impact on visual quality should be minor (for everybody but videophiles, anyway):

“In normal circumstances, we have many (sometimes dozens) of different streams for a single title within each resolution. In Europe, for the next 30 days, within each category we’ve simply removed the highest bandwidth streams. If you are particularly tuned into video quality you may notice a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution. But you will still get the video quality you paid for.”

So far, Netflix has yet to indicate that similar measures will be coming to the United States, though it’s certainly possible as more and more locations engage in everything from voluntary self-quarantines to mandatory shelter in place requirements. Disney’s Disney+ service, which launches across Europe on Tuesday, will similarly incorporate a bitrate throttling scheme for the foreseeable future. The company’s launch of Disney+ in France has been delayed until April 7 at the request of the French government.

Many telecom executives and experts I’ve spoken to about the strain COVID-19 will place on U.S. networks have remained largely optimistic the U.S. internet will be able to handle the load, though many are quick to point out that it’s hard to make predictions given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic–and the US’ historic inability to craft accurate broadband speed and availability maps:

“Blair Levin was a former FCC chief of staff and co-author of the agency’s 2010 “National Broadband Plan.”…

“I don’t think anyone knows,” Levin said. “First, the FCC has done such a poor job of collecting data that we don’t know where we are on many points. Second, we really don’t know how much bigger the bandwidth demands will be. So this situation will be a stress test and show us where we are strong and where we are weak.”

Most of those weaknesses shouldn’t be particularly surprising for Techdirt readers. The central transit core of the US internet shouldn’t have problems; it’s the spotty, expensive, and slow “last mile” where a lot of headaches will pop up. US telcos, who’ve neglected their infrastructure for years, have refused to upgrade (or in some instances even repair) the nation’s aging DSL lines. As entire families attempt to use sluggish era-2003 speeds to teleconference and stream video, games, and music, problems will inevitably arise (especially on the upstream side). VPNs could also be another congestion point.

But the biggest problem remains affordability and availability. For years, arguments that broadband should be seen as an essential utility were brushed aside, and now the “digital divide” could easily become a matter of life and death. Some 44 million Americans can’t get any kind of broadband whatsoever, and thanks to limited U.S. competition (especially at faster speeds), many more can’t afford a decent connection. This patchy, expensive, barely competitive nature of US telecom networks is something the industry’s biggest players have lobbied to perpetuate for years, and now the check is likely coming due for many.
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