Netflix will reduce its European network traffic by 25 percent to manage surge

Netflix will take new actions to reduce bit rates of streams in Europe following a conversation between the European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton and CEO Reed Hastings, the company announced on Thursday.

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

The reduction comes on top of other methods Netflix has implemented since 2011 to keep streaming steady in low bandwidth areas. Netflix already uses an adaptive streaming tool that automatically adjusts the quality of streaming video based on accessible bandwidth, the company confirmed. Netflix began the pilot of its “open connect” program when the company started streaming video between 2010 and 2011.

Netflix, which partners with internet service providers around the world on network management, will determine what quality of stream is best for the viewer in an effort to ensure buffering doesn’t occur. If bandwidth is low, videos will automatically stream at a lower resolution. But if everyone is running at higher speeds and trying to share those pipes, don’t expect HD or 4K streaming.

“Important phone conversation with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, today,” Breton tweeted on Wednesday. “To beat COVID-19, we stay at home. Teleworking and streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain. To secure internet access for all, let’s switch to standard definition when HD is not necessary.”

Netflix’s bit rate reduction comes at a time when Nielsen is estimating that people staying home “can lead to almost a 60 percent increase in the amount of content we watch in some cases and potentially more depending on the reasons” due to the novel coronavirus. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus, and Hulu — alongside other forms of streaming entertainment — will grow the longer people are stuck at home.

Nielsen has already seen increases in TV and internet consumption in areas heavily impacted by the novel coronavirus, including South Korea and Italy. In South Korea, between the second week of February and the fourth week, “there was a surge in the virus, the analysis noted a 17 percent increase in TV viewing — an increase of approximately 1.2 million viewers.” Italy saw similar gains.

Video games and Twitch-style gaming streams are also testing the limits of the network. StreamElements, a research firm that conducts regular surveys of the industry with partner Arsenal.gg, discovered that Twitch saw a 10 percent increase in viewership over the last week. Live-stream viewership in Italy also grew more than 66 percent since the first week of February, according to StreamElements — just when the quarantine began. “In addition to individual channels growing in size, we have … seen the amount of channels being watched almost double,” CEO Doron Nir.

Widespread containment efforts have also resulted in many more people relying on the internet for previously offline activities, like working or conducting classes. Many people are using video conferencing tools like Zoom, which puts an additional weight on broadband. Washington state’s Northshore School District superintendent Michelle Reid wrote to parents about the move to online schooling and noted that if students don’t have a stable or usable internet connection, they’ll be provided with a mobile hotspot in order to continue their education. Other school districts aren’t as well prepared, but are trying to conduct online classes in similar ways.

Netflix declined to comment about how much of an increase in consumption the company is seeing around the world, but it seems likely that the service has also seen an uptick in users. And as more people around the world are forced to self-isolate or work from home, the amount of people opening streaming apps will grow — and the network is likely to continue to strain under the pressure.