Netflix Agrees to Limit Streaming Traffic in Europe to Ease Coronavirus-Related Congestion

Netflix Co-founder, Chairman & CEO Reed Hastings-Getty-H 2018
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A commissioner of the European Union after a conversation with Netflix chairman and CEO Reed Hastings tweeted: "To secure internet access for all, let's #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary."

Netflix said Thursday that it would reduce its streaming quality in Europe for the next month as the region deals with taxed networks amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The move, made in response to a request from EU Internal Market and Services Commissioner Thierry Breton, is expected to reduce Netflix traffic by around 25 percent.

"Following the discussions between Commissioner Thierry Breton and [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings — and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus — Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days," a company spokesman said in a statement. "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."

Breton praised Netflix's response in a statement of his own, noting, "Social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus lead to increased demand for internet capacity be it for teleworking, e-learning or entertainment purposes. I welcome the very prompt action that Netflix has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the Internet during the COVID19 crisis while maintaining a good experience for users. Mr. Hastings has demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility and solidarity. We'll keep closely in touch to follow the evolution of the situation together."

Breton, a high-ranking member of the European Union, previously had called on Netflix to do its part as more people were forced to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus. His request was that the entertainment giant limit streaming of its films and TV series to standard definition, not high definition, or HD, streams, which require more online bandwidth, at peak times.

Breton said in a statement on Twitter that he spoke with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about the issue on Wednesday: "Important phone conversation with @ReedHastings, CEO of @Netflix. To beat #COVID19, we #StayAtHome. Teleworking & streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain. To secure Internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary."

Breton, who served as CEO of France Telecom from 2002 until 2005, and Hastings discussed options to reduce internet congestion, such as a temporary automatic switch for streaming video users from high to standard definition during peak usage hours, Politico reported. 

"Streaming platforms, telecom operators and users, we all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation," Breton told Politico in a statement.

Despite concerns about congestion amid a surge in home streaming, there is limited evidence so far that networks are being overloaded beyond people on social media mentioning slow internet access.

"From our current perspective, the increase in home office and streaming services will not lead to a situation in which the network capacities reach their limits," a representative from German telecom giant Deutsche Telekom told news agency DPA. Vodafone spokesman Volker Petendor concurred, saying the company considered itself “well equipped” for an increase in online use, noting that it was “monitoring the situation very closely day and night” and could quickly react to ease congestion if necessary.

In Italy, where the country has been on lockdown since early March, online traffic passing through Telecom Italia's national network has surged by more than two-thirds, the company said, with much of the extra activity due to online games, such as Fortnite and Call of Duty.

“We reported an increase of more than 70 percent of internet traffic over our landline network, with a big contribution from online gaming such as Fortnite,” Telecom Italia CEO Luigi Gubitosi said on a call with analysts last week.

In the U.K., a spokesman for Vodafone Group's local unit said the company has been adding to network capacity ahead of planned government restrictions on public gatherings, restrictions that took effect this week.

The issue of ensuring broadband connectivity has also been a topic in the U.S. where companies, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, have taken the Federal Communications Commission’s "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," agreeing late last week that for 60 days they will not cut internet service for customers, whether individuals or small businesses, who are unable to pay their bills due to the coronavirus and that they will waive late fees connected with the pandemic.

March 19, 12:20 p.m. Updated with Netflix's statement about its decision to cut streaming traffic.

Scott Roxborough in Cologne contributed to this report.