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Netflix, YouTube throttle streaming quality in Europe as coronavirus forces people indoors

Posted at 6:02 AM, Mar 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-24 09:02:29-04

As the coronavirus pandemic forces people around the world to stay inside, streaming platforms including Netflix and YouTube have been forced to throttle video quality in Europe amid unprecedented demand, leaving many wondering if similar actions in the U.S. will soon follow.

European Union officials have been in talks with leaders of some of the major players in the video streaming industry, asking them to take steps to ensure they're using telecom networks as efficiently as possible as government-mandated stay-in-place orders take effect throughout the region.

"In Europe, for the next 30 days, within each category we’ve simply removed the highest bandwidth streams," Ken Florance, Netflix's vice president of content delivery said in a statement on Saturday.

"If you are particularly tuned into video quality you may notice a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution," Florance added. "But you will still get the video quality you paid for."

Florance noted that internet service providers around the world vary greatly, and that "some partners in regions such as Latin America want us to reduce our bandwidth as soon as possible. But others want to continue with business as usual."

"So we will provide relief to ISPs who are dealing with large government-mandated 'shelter in place' orders by providing the 25% traffic reduction we’ve started in Europe," he said. "For other networks, we’ll stick with our normal procedures -- until and unless they experience issues of their own."

Google-owned YouTube confirmed that it temporarily defaulted all traffic in the EU to its "standard definition" video quality.

"People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times. While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity," a Google spokesperson told ABC News in a statement.

Following a meeting between Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, YouTube's CEO Susan Wojcicki and EU Commissioner for Internet Market Thierry Breton, "we are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the EU to Standard Definition," the spokesperson added.

"We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience," the statement said.

Amazon officials similarly said that they had already taken action in Europe -- and while the reductions in video quality have not yet impacted the U.S., they are closely monitoring the situation and are ready to take action if called upon by government agencies.

"We support the need for careful management of telecom services to ensure they can handle the increased internet demand with so many people now at home full-time due to COVID-19," a Prime Video spokesperson told ABC News in a statement.

"Prime Video is working with local authorities and internet service providers where needed to help mitigate any network congestion, including in Europe where we’ve already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates while maintaining a quality streaming experience for our customers," the spokesperson added.

MORE: Coronavirus crisis will burden economy for 'years to come,' OECD chief saysDisney's streaming service, Disney+, will temporarily reduce its overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25% "in all of the markets launching Disney+" starting on Tuesday, Kevin Mayer, the chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at The Walt Disney Company said in a statement.

"In the coming days, we will be monitoring Internet congestion and working closely with Internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand," Mayer added. "We look forward to the launch of Disney+ and hope it will provide a much-needed respite for families in these challenging and trying times."