Netflix, YouTube cut bandwidth use in Europe with Covid-19 crisis; Asia, US stand firm

24 Mar 2020 12:00 am by Matthew Newman

Netflix, Google’s YouTube and Disney have raced to keep Europe’s broadband networks from seizing up by voluntarily degrading the quality of their streaming services as Covid-19 related stay-at-home orders have prompted a surge in demand for video conferencing, gaming and distance learning.

These US companies have responded to appeals last week by the European Commission, telecom regulators, the French government and Internet service providers by cutting the streaming rate by about 25 percent for movies and series beamed on European screens as parts of the continent hunker down during the Covid-19 crisis.

So far, the efforts seem to have paid off. There have been no reports of Internet breakdowns as France, Spain and Italy oblige millions to remain in their homes to comply with quarantine orders. While there have been some problems with mobile networks, European users haven’t experienced problems accessing video conferencing or distance learning services.

In a statement  on 24 March, eight of Europe’s leading telco chief executives welcomed the content providers’ efforts, stating they’ve seen “substantial improvements” in Internet traffic.

The quick response by streaming services shows that they took the commission’s warning very seriously and didn’t want to be seen as the source of network congestion.

Europe’s requests for streaming companies to reduce video quality to avoid network congestion haven’t been matched in most parts of the world, with the exception of several countries, including Israel, Brazil and India, which announced today a lockdown of a country of 1.3 billion people for 21 days.

In the US, where states and cities have ordered more than 158 million Americans to stay home, there haven’t been any reports of network problems or changes to how viewers watch streamed content.

“We are monitoring our network usage very, very closely and we’re watching the load on the network both nationally and locally,” said Joel Shadle, a spokesman for Comcast, which had 26.4 million residential customers for high-speed Internet at the end of 2019, making it the biggest US residential Internet provider. “So far, we’ve seen some shift in usage patterns, with more daytime use in areas that have moved to a work-from-home environment, and where schools are conducting distance-learning programs. But overall, peaks in usage are still well within our network’s capability.”

A US Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman said the regulator has no plans to ask any content provider to reduce bandwidth to ease pressure on Internet service providers.

The quick response by US streaming giants — including Disney’s agreement to delay the launch of its Disney Plus service for two weeks in France — shows their sensitivity to being seen as helping to address a major health emergency through sensible measures that won’t harm their customers’ enjoyment of movies and series.

These major US content providers, which are facing new EU rules this year that could make them more responsible for content on their platforms, may be eager to placate regulators’ demands so they can build up goodwill and avoid being regarded as causing network congestion problems.

EU measures

Lockdown orders began in Italy on March 9 and were quickly matched in France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and eventually the UK, which yesterday banned people from leaving their homes except for limited reasons.

These orders were accompanied by a spike in Internet usage as entire populations sought entertainment as well as the necessity of staying in touch with family and friends, video conferencing and distance learning.

As Internet providers such as Vodafone and Telecom Italia saw a surge in data traffic between 50 percent and 75 percent in some markets last week, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton called for streaming companies such as Netflix “to take responsibility in preventing Internet congestion by switching to standard definition” (see here).

The commission and Berec, the EU's electronic communications regulatory body, last week gave telcos permission to depart from the EU’s strict net neutrality laws — which forbid Internet providers from throttling or degrading streaming and gaming sites — and take necessary “traffic management measures.”

The result was that telcos were able to prevent network congestion by making adjustments to their networks to deal with large increases in traffic linked to the current pandemic crisis.

“We’re more concerned with the network being available than issues of network equality,” one European regulator said today. “There was a risk of a badly functioning network.”

Following a phone call with Breton on March 18, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings quickly agreed to reduce bit rates across all its streaming services in Europe for 30 days. Google’s YouTube quickly jumped on board by switching all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default.

Video network usage

These announcements were followed by Amazon Prime, and, over the weekend, by Disney and Facebook, which has seen a surge in use of its WhatsApp and Messenger and Instagram services.

Regulators say these efforts have made a difference given streaming services' massive use of bandwidth.

According to a 2019 report by US networking equipment company Sandvine, video accounts for more than 60 percent of data delivered from Internet providers globally to consumers, with Netflix accounting for just under 12 percent of total traffic. Google traffic, driven by YouTube, accounts for another 12 percent.

But streaming services aren’t all to blame. The same report found that torrent application BitTorrent is over 27 percent of total upstream volume of traffic, and over 44 percent in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

And then there’s multiplayer gaming, which gobbles up massive amounts of bandwidth. Another factor is pornography as people remained confined in their homes. Pornography website Pornhub offered its premium service for free in France, Spain and Italy, leading to even more downloads and demand for streamed videos.

Contrast with Asia

While Europe begins weeks-long confinements, several Asian countries have been fighting the virus for months with stay-at-home orders.

Regulators are watching network developments but haven’t taken any measures to dial back streaming services’ broadband usage. In China, where the outbreak began, there hasn’t been any discussion on reducing content providers’ Internet use.

In South Korea, traffic caused by services such as Netflix has increased but the country’s network can withstand the surge. As a result, the government hasn’t asked any Internet service providers to reduce bandwidth.

Equally, there have been no reports of network problems in New Zealand and Australia. However, Australia's communication minister, Paul Fletcher, has welcomed Netflix's decision to dial down its streaming configurations to reduce the demand on Australia's broadband network.

The New Zealand Telecommunications Forum said the country's networks are more than able to respond to the increased demand from people working from home and self-isolating.

In Japan, NTT Communications, the largest provider of optical fiber Internet connection, reportedly saw about a 30 percent increase in daytime usage in March. However, there hasn't been any need to limit bandwidth as a result of the pandemic.

Latin America

While Asia’s infrastructure has withstood the storm, Latin America is starting to see some creaking points and regulators have started making requests that emulate those in Europe.

In Brazil, platform GloboPlay said it’s temporarily suspending video streaming in 4K and full high definition to relieve pressure on the countries’ online infrastructure.

"We have to act proactively to avoid a scenario of collapse in the Brazilian Internet infrastructure at such a delicate moment, when digital services are fundamental for the population," Raymundo Barros, Globo's director of technology, said in a press release.

In Argentina, which began a one-month quarantine on March 20, video conferencing applications increased their traffic by 110 percent since March 16. Yesterday, Netflix announced that it will lower the quality of its streaming in the country for at least 30 days, after a request by local telecom regulator Ente Nacional de Comunicaciones or Enacom.

The Chilean telecom regulator has asked Internet service providers to monitor traffic and develop a contingency plan for managing the expected traffic increase.

In Mexico, the telecom regulator estimates that the radio spectrum for commercial use assigned to telecom operators will be enough to meet the traffic demand. It hasn't taken any measures to increase network capacity.

Was it necessary?

In the past week, Europe’s telcos haven’t reported any significant problems with a spike in traffic as millions of Europeans heed orders to work and study from home. One could ask whether US streaming companies’ efforts were really needed.

BT said on March 20, several days after millions of people stopped going to schools and offices and daytime traffic increased 35 percent to 60 percent, that “the UK’s communications infrastructure is well within its capacity limits, and has significant headroom for growth in demand.”

Vodafone, which operates mobile and fixed networks in 13 markets in Europe, said last week that Covid-19 is having a “significant impact on our services and placing a greater demand on our network.” The company responded by boosting capacity “to manage this demand as much as possible.”

“Our technology teams throughout Europe have been focusing on capacity across our networks to make sure they are resilient and can absorb any new usage patterns arising as more people start working from home,” said the UK-based operator.

Goodwill

In Europe, the US streaming giants didn’t have much to lose by cutting their broadband rates. They say that customers won’t notice a difference when they watch Netflix’s hit show Downton Abbey in standard definition rather than high definition.

Disney has arguably taken the biggest hit by delaying the launch of its Disney Plus service by two weeks from March 24 to April 7. It’s also agreed to reduce streaming rates by about 25 percent in the other European markets where it will start Disney Plus.

None of these companies were obliged under the EU’s net neutrality rules to follow the request from the European Commission and national regulators.

But they must have been calculating that cooperating was the best business strategy as Europeans remain under lockdowns that could last several months.

Netflix is also clamoring to create goodwill by agreeing to dial back streaming rates across all services in Europe to reduce its traffic on European networks by around 25 percent while ensuring a "good quality service for our members”.

Canal Plus, France’s leading pay TV channel, announced at the beginning of the country’s lockdown on March 16 that it would make its premium channels available for free for two weeks, but was forced to return to a pay service after commercial TV channels TF1 and M6 complained that the free channels were playing movies that they had already bought.

What has prompted this outpouring of corporate generosity?

The issue for Europe’s regulators is that they must not risk having streaming services clog broadband networks as millions of citizens are confined in their homes to work and study using video conferencing and sending work and school-related documents. These are critical services to keep their populations active and productive.

It’s one thing putting entire economies on hold, and quite another to have cutting-edge communication networks oversaturated with kids playing online games and watching Disney movies.

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