Netflix and other streaming platforms urged to switch to SD during COVID-19 crisis

The European Commission is putting pressure on Netflix and other streaming platforms to switch to standard definition during periods of peak demand as the coronavirus crisis puts unprecedented load on Internet infrastructure.

Across the European Union — a region with around 445M citizens —  it’s likely many millions of office workers will switch to teleworking, as countries impose quarantine measures and instruct people to work from home wherever possible. The European Commission itself, which employs around 32,000 people, moved all non-critical staff to remote work at the start of this week.

Yesterday Thierry Breton, the commissioner for the EU’s internal market who is also a former CEO of France Telecom, tweeted that he’d spoke to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to make the case for standard definition streaming by default during the COVID-19 public health crisis.

A spokesman for Breton told us the Commission is inviting streaming platforms to follow the lead of telecom providers and consider adapting the throughput of video streaming, such as by temporarily moving to SD rather than HD streaming — at least for the most critical working hours.

In Breton’s call with Netflix a number of potential measures were discussed — per the spokesman — including an automatic switch to standard definition during peaks of Internet activities on impacted geographies, which the Commission says represents a “responsible option”, that will help secure telecommunications infrastructures while “keeping offering the best service to users and consumers, with no disruption”.

Many content and application providers are already applying this sort of flexibility measure, it added.

The Commission is also asking telecoms operators that provide Internet services to take steps to prevent and mitigate the impacts of impending network congestion, by inviting them to make use of “possibilities” offered by EU net neutrality rules.

Earlier this week Vodafone reported a 50% surge in Internet traffic in some European countries as scores of people logged on from home. “Covid-19 is already having a significant impact on our services and placing a greater demand on our network,” the company said in a statement, adding that: “We should expect this trend of data growth to continue.”

At the same time the Commission is calling for Internet users in the region to make responsible use of online recreational activities — such as by opting for settings that reduce data consumption, including using Wi-Fi (rather than mobile data) and choosing lower resolution for content whenever possible.

It wants joint action from all stakeholders to ease the pressure on infrastructure and facilitate remote working and online education at a time of region-wide public health crisis.

In a statement Breton added: “Europe and the whole world are facing an unprecedented situation. Governments have taken measures to reduce social interactions to contain the spread of Covid-19, and to encourage remote working and online education. 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.”

It’s not clear exactly what wiggle room the Commission envisages in EU net neutrality rules for prioritizing certain types of traffic over others during the coronavirus crisis.

We asked Breton’s spokesman for clarification on this point but he responded by emphasizing that the Commission is hoping to steer off such a scenario, telling us: “By calling for all stakeholders’ responsibility (platforms/telcos/users) we are proactively ensuring smooth functioning of the Internet so that the question of prioritization does not need to be asked.”

We also reached out to Netflix to ask what steps it’s taking to help manage bandwidth demand in the region. At the time of writing the company had not responded.

Breton’s spokesman said the commissioner is due to hold a follow-up call with Hastings in the coming days.

More broadly, the Commission is working on setting up a reporting mechanism to ensure regular monitoring of the Internet traffic situation in each Member State in order to be able to respond swiftly to capacity issues, liaising on this with the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications and with the support of national regulatory authorities.

We’ve also contacted YouTube for comment on the Commission’s call for proactive action from streaming platforms to help manage increased demand on Internet infrastructure.