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

from the throttle-me dept

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.

Filed Under: bandwidth, covid-19, europe, networks, streaming, throttling, video streams
Companies: disney, instagram, netflix, youtube


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 7:32am

    I have to wonder if the telecoms are more concerned about the average Joe bumping up against the bandwith caps vrs bogging down the network. If more and more people bump up against the cap because they are staying/working from home, it's bound to shed some light on how ridiculous they are. You can cheat 5% of your customer base without to much of an uproar, but you get into the 10 to 20% and the phone calls to Political Representatives are taken a bit more seriously.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 24 Mar 2020 @ 7:51am

      Re:

      "I have to wonder if the telecoms are more concerned about the average Joe bumping up against the bandwith caps"

      No such thing for much of Europe for non-mobile connections. Even with mobile the tendency is to throttle the speed when you hit the cap, with the option to buy a full speed top up, rather than just charge you for the overage.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 4:01am

      Re:

      "If more and more people bump up against the cap because they are staying/working from home, it's bound to shed some light on how ridiculous they are."

      There's a lot to be said for a future regulatory legislation to the effect that a telco ought to actually have the capacity to cover the bandwidth they try to sell to everyone. Right now, as you state, it's ridiculous. It's become customary to oversell bandwidth to the point where in some EU member states the situation is ridiculous.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 4:31am

        Re: Re:

        "There's a lot to be said for a future regulatory legislation to the effect that a telco ought to actually have the capacity to cover the bandwidth they try to sell to everyone"

        The thing is, logistics and infrastructure simply don't work that way. Nothing is designed to meet 100% of potential capacity. This is true of roads - nobody designs a road to be able to get every car on it. Nobody designs a power grid that's capable of getting every home at maximum capacity. Nobody designs a supermarket that's capable of getting everybody through the tills at the same time. Nobody designs a public transport network that has enough capacity to take every passengers should every road be closed. To do so would be a ridiculous cost to create capacity that would never be used under normal circumstances.

        Now, the situation does vary from country to country and there's definitely been a lot of underfunding in some areas. But, this is a unique situation that most people never expected to have to plan for, and those who did would probably have said that other ways of mitigating problems are far more realistically manageable. We should be looking at realistic long term solutions, which has to include network management and other things that can prevent problems under normal operation. If you find that traffic keeps getting backed up at a particular set of traffic lights, you change the timing of the lights before you try and build a new lane.

        Hell, getting 100% capacity at the ISP's last mile (the current bottleneck in most places) would not solve the problem anyway. At that point, all you're doing is moving the bottlenecks to the main backbone networks.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Mar 2020 @ 4:01am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "The thing is, logistics and infrastructure simply don't work that way. Nothing is designed to meet 100% of potential capacity."

          Oh, i know. There's a matter of degree though. The road must accommodate nominal peak traffic.

          Now where I live there is regulation on the books that forces an ISP to back, to some extent, their guarantees. If my provider promises me 100 Mbit they still need to guarantee a certain minimum. In my case if i can get a speedtest of less than 50 Mbit/s three times I don't need to pay the broadband bill that month. This encourages the ISP to preserve a certain honesty in what they promise.

          "But, this is a unique situation that most people never expected to have to plan for..."

          I fail to see how given that the "plan" as normal included having to exponentially expand bandwidth to cover a 4k streaming standard, 5G, and of course the late riser of game streaming.
          And aside from the pandemic we already have certain times when the net gets stress tested by streaming demands. Eurovision, for instance.

          The rational explanation - or even the self-evident one - is that default operational capacity wasn't designed to meet the standard marketing plan either.

          I'll go you one further. The only reason regulators are involving themselves in this is because when a pandemic hits they all want to be observed doing "their part".

          Maybe it's just me being a cynic but what I'm seeing here isn't an unplanned-for tsunami hit a network unprepared for it. I'm seeing an activity surge hitting a network which wasn't maintained and expanded to meet normal demands either in many places, and a lot of politicians wanting to suddenly appear to be busy doing useful stuff.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 26 Mar 2020 @ 5:18am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "Oh, i know. There's a matter of degree though. The road must accommodate nominal peak traffic."

            Well, that's my point. If you want to criticise them for not be able to support such peak traffic then fine, but that is absolutely not what's happening here. You might as well be attacking supermarkets for not having a monster stockpile of toilet roll. They could only plan for what was predictable, then react when the unpredictable happened.

            "I fail to see how given that the "plan" as normal included having to exponentially expand bandwidth to cover a 4k streaming standard, 5G, and of course the late riser of game streaming."

            Because that plan was over the space of many years. Where I live, much of the old ADSL connectivity has been replaced with fibre capable of getting many times more bandwidth. But, that's not happened in 100% of places yet, and some of the tech itself wasn't in place a decade before. It's not poor planning to have not rolled our fibre installation to every tiny village in Spain yet.

            Again, they can plan to invest in infrastructure in order for those services to be supported properly when they become the norm. That doesn't mean it'll be magically in place when they get 1000% higher demand overnight because the government ordered people to stay inside and watch netflix.

            "The rational explanation - or even the self-evident one - is that default operational capacity wasn't designed to meet the standard marketing plan either."

            No, that's just you exposing your ignorance of how these things work. Networks are usually nowhere near maximum capacity, so they are provisioned to presume that only a certain level of usage will happen at certain times. Again - if this is always failing, you have a point. If it's only happening because the entire population of a country is being told to stay indoors due to an emergency pandemic situation, you do not. This is simple logistics and applies to every service you use - nothing is prepared automatically for situations like this, which is why you're seeing empty shelves, etc.

            "The only reason regulators are involving themselves in this is because when a pandemic hits they all want to be observed doing "their part"."

            So, damned if they do, damned if they don't. You don't see them panicking and you assume they do nothing. they visibly do their jobs and it's just a play for the cameras. In fact, some regulators have not got involved at all here, but these services have opted to apply these measures EU-wide rather than deal with individual regulators after there's a problem.

            "what I'm seeing here isn't an unplanned-for tsunami hit a network unprepared for it"

            Then you're deliberately ignoring the current issue. Also, where are you applying your comments? The US is very different to Europe and, say, the UK is very different to Poland in terms of the network and regulation. Put down that broad brush and at least target the people who have not been doing their jobs, rather than the people whose network was fully prepared until the entire country was shut in their houses.

            For what it's worth, I've personally not seen any issues before or after the lockdown where I am in terms of service either through netflix or my ISP, and that's with many of the local bars organising virtual hangouts for hundreds of people where everyone who'd normally be in the bars can see local musicians etc., with no complaints about streaming quality or bandwidth despite the fact that everyone watching would normally be out at the timw.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 27 Mar 2020 @ 7:38am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              "Also, where are you applying your comments? The US is very different to Europe and, say, the UK is very different to Poland in terms of the network and regulation."

              The main gist of my criticism is aimed at the US, honestly.
              You know, the land of opportunity and future, where infrastructure is rightly held in high regard.../s.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                PaulT (profile), 27 Mar 2020 @ 7:48am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                I did suspect that, hence my confusion over a few things in a comment thread that's specifically about throttling in Europe, and long-term planning ability in thread that's specifically about a situation nobody could have predicted 6 months ago.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 7:58am

    Well I have a bandwith cap here in Florida. I've never gone over it, but it's fairly muddy on what happens when I do. It will be interesting to find out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 9:20am

      Re:

      With Comcast, they give you 2 months a year going over. After that, you start forking out more money after the 1TB cap.

      I think right now, they have stopped with the CAP I think until May sometime? My Speed seems to be OK right now, but going through a VPN, I take a HUGE hit which is not normal. It really kills my speed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 8:04am

    The problem is the same, whichever country you look at. The companies responsible for giving the services that people pay extortionate monthly fees for, broadband and phone, (both fixed and mobile) coupled with things like 'tax breaks' in return for the always broken pledges of what these companies will then do if unencumbered by 'red tape' and lack of funds, never have and never will accomplish anything! Why? Because they dont want to! Because too many politicians are more than happy to sign off on what these companies say they will do, knowing nothing will be done but the little brown envelopes, the back handers and campaign contributions that fill the individual bank accounts are more important! The onus for the failing systems falls right in the laps of these telecommunications companies and double-standards politicians who will never be held accountable! Until, that is, they are personally affected, then held accountable. When things happen like what happened last week when a boss got rid of 37k jobs, then took over $32 million as a thankyou, these greedy fuckers will ensure everyone else will suffer but not them or their lackeys! Disgraceful!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 8:43am

    "COVID-19 Internet Strain"

    "COVID-19 Internet Strain"

    • I'm pretty sure it's not that kind of virus!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Mar 2020 @ 8:51am

    Curiosity kills the cat, again

    I know that video is charged with large percentages of Internet traffic volume, but has there ever been a comparison with the amount of traffic caused by malware, computer viruses, trojans, downloading compromised data, etc.?

    I am also wondering about where the traffic jams are or might be occurring. Is it between the user and the first router accessed on the net, or is it on the network between net related routers? If the latter, then why are we not talking more about total network capacity, rather than the size/speed of the connection between user and the net? Shouldn't network capacity be some percentage of possible peak loads?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 24 Mar 2020 @ 9:17am

    Nobody need 4k ...at all. For the most part there's not enough difference between 1080 and 720 for me to care; the resolution isn't why I watch something vs. something else. (Caps are a scourge, but this isn't about caps. Of course, a well-designed network can manage itself without having to worry about bandwidth. But then the typical ISP doesn't have a well-designed network.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 9:34am

      Re:

      I think there's a pretty big difference from 1080P and 720P, not as big as from 480. As for 4K, you're right. It's a way to sell people more TV's. The biggest thing people really notice with 4K is HDR. (High Dynamic Range) This is from the Whitest white to the darkest black.

      For resolution. It's all about screen size and Distance. Even with 1080P, people had way too small of a TV for the distance they sat. So playing a DVD, streaming movies, looked just fine. You can't see the Resolution you have. There's is streaming quality and much better Blu-Ray quality.

      Now we have 4K TV's. They need to be even LARGER!!!! My brother just got a new 4K TV, It's a Sony, something like 90+ Inches. He doesn't sit far from the screen. 6 feet? It's HUGE!!! But that is really the size to distance you need for a 4K TV. To see that 4K Resolution you are paying for!!!!! This is why I think for many, a Front Projector is really the only practical way to go to get a large enough screen for the distance you sit at a price you can afford.

      I got a 1080P 70" TV from my Brother since he replaced it with the 4K Sony. It replaced my 50" Plasma. The 50" was fine when I got it for the room I was in at my old place. But in my house now, it was too small. The 70" 1080P display was the right size for the room it's in now. It just took a dump about a week ago. I'm working on fixing it. I'll know today if I can get it working again. Otherwise, it'll be time to get a new TV. All you can get these days is a 4K TV. So I'm looking at a 75-80" Plus I'll have to replace my Surround Sound Reciever since it doesn't support 4K. That sucks, but by other streaming devices that don't support 4K. I really didn't want to go there at this time. I'd rather buy another 1080P TV. 4K is really a waste.

      Do you have a Movie Theater size screen in your house? That's 4K and when you would want 4K.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 10:59am

        Re: Re:

        I have a 75" 4k UHD TV positioned about 9 feet from the viewer. I also have very good eyesight. 4k, at that screen size, is a distinct improvement over HD. 4k TVs can also display HD content.

        While you may not see the benefit to 4k -- and I'm sure plenty of people don't -- lots of other people do. 4k even helps with sharpness/clarity on computer screens.

        At this point I seriously doubt that adding 4k support to a TV costs that much more than an HD screen. Economies of scale and all that. We're probably talking about a difference of $20 in manufacturing cost. And given that 4k can display your HD content, where is the problem?

        Ranting just to rant?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 4:05am

      Re:

      "For the most part there's not enough difference between 1080 and 720 for me to care..."

      1080 is visibly better than 720 - by a lot, on a 20+ inch monitor.
      But you won't really notice much of a difference going from 1080 to 4096 so 4k is just outright ridicuous.

      "Of course, a well-designed network can manage itself without having to worry about bandwidth."

      That read a bit like "If pigs had wings they'd fly just fine". The sad truth is that most networks aren't really well managed - or at the very least they're usually obligated to deliver more bandwidth than they actually possess.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 5:03am

        Re: Re:

        "But you won't really notice much of a difference going from 1080 to 4096 so 4k is just outright ridicuous."

        Which is essentially what's driving the decisions here. The visible downgrade for most customers is minimal to the point that some may not even notice, while the bandwidth savings are tremendous. A few weeks of temporary downgrade is preferable to buffering for most people.

        In fact, I can't imagine there's a great deal of overlap between people who are that anal about the resolution, and people who use streaming rather than downloads or physical media in the first place.

        "The sad truth is that most networks aren't really well managed"

        The truth is that you don't notice one way or the other until you hit a problem, which is the way with most things. If you come across them regularly, there's an ISP or other problem. If you only come across it during a global pandemic, I dare say they're doing it OK the rest of the time.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 27 Mar 2020 @ 7:45am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "The truth is that you don't notice one way or the other until you hit a problem, which is the way with most things."

          True enough, but that has nothing to do with bad network management and ailing infrastructure. A good network, when hit with an excess of static data flow due to increase consumer demand would optimize the handling of it - maybe everyone gets 1Mbit/s instead of 10 Mbit/s.

          A crap network instead caves when a bunch of 20-year old routers go down as if they'd been sunk by a stream of Christmas packets courtesy of the chinese cyberwarfare department.

          If every citizen in NYC opens their tap at the same time what you expect is a sharp pressure drop. You don't expect the main pumps to go boom.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 24 Mar 2020 @ 10:16am

    Reduce stream on mobile devices and reduce ads

    Here are some ideas to reduce the strain on the network:
    1) Detect the device (which is fairly easy to do) and don't stream 4K or even 1080p to a mobile device.
    2) Cut down or stop the ads before the videos. How much bandwidth can be saved by cutting one 10-second or 20-second ad from 2 million videos played per day? Especially then a vast majority of those ads are never interacted-with except for the Skip Ad button.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    rajasimha, 24 Mar 2020 @ 11:31am

    COVID-19 Internet Strain"

    I'm pretty sure it's not that kind of virus!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2020 @ 7:15pm

    Apparently we need strict download limits and throttling to help manage the load on the network. So which is it? Are the networks up to scratch and the limits unnecessary, or are the networks going to figuratively collapse under the load?

    Haha, I'm just kidding. We all know money is the factor at stake here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Mar 2020 @ 3:22pm

    Then.you use a VPN to circumvent that

    When I had my online radio station 10 years ago and used a server at data center in europe somewheres upstream from then throttled all traffic from outside of europe

    Using a VPN in europe let me circumvent that until my subscription with them was up and I could put my server in another data center

    Using that VPN to bypass their upstream providees throttling of traffic from outside europe did not break any laws in Europe or the United States, so.dont get me started on the cfaa

    Using a VPN to bypass throttling does not break any laws in Europe or the United States

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 9:13pm

      Re:

      "Then.you use a VPN to circumvent that"

      If you're a selfish dick. The more people who do this, the more strain placed on your local ISP network as you compete with bandwidth with other customers in a time of unprecedented demand, and some find themselves unnecessarily having buffering and other issues (to say nothing of issues with other services more important than your movie watching). But, hey, you got around a slight temporary reduction in video quality...

      "Using a VPN to bypass throttling does not break any laws in Europe or the United States"

      Neither does hoarding toilet paper and hygienic supplies, it's just not a particularly good thing to do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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