Netflix is lowering video bitrates in Europe because of coronavirus

Netflix will temporarily lower its streaming quality in Europe, after concerns that the video service might be putting too much stress on broadband infrastructure. On-demand services have proved to be a welcome distraction for people forced to stay home during social distancing, in an attempt to curtail the community spread of coronavirus.

At the same time, though, Netflix's traffic has presented a not-inconsiderable challenge to infrastructure. As demands for higher-quality video have increased, in tandem with faster home internet connections and more affordable 4K TVs, the proportion of online traffic Netflix makes has risen too.

That might not be an issue at normal times, but having a far greater number of people at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has put greater strain on the system. At the same time, workers suddenly unable to go into the office and instead working from home are using video conferencing systems more frequently. Something had to give, and it seems that will be Netflix's higher bitrates.

For the next 30 days, Netflix says, it will be reducing its streaming bitrate across Europe. "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," the company told SlashGear in a statement.

The decision comes after Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for internal market, confirmed he had spoken with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about the potential impact of streaming. "Teleworking & streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain," the commissioner explained on Twitter. "To secure Internet access for all, let's #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary."

Netflix uses a purpose-built content delivery network (CDN), dubbed Netflix Open Connect. These are effectively localized stores for Netflix data, appliances the company provides to ISPs that are focused on delivering streaming shows and movies in the most efficient way possible.

Back in 2018, the company said that almost 95-percent of its global traffic is delivered via direct connections between Open Connect and residential ISPs. "Most of these connections are localized to the regional point of interconnection geographically closest to the member watching," Netflix said at the time.

Even with the changes Netflix is making to its streaming bitrates, what you might see in terms of a difference in picture quality isn't easy to quantify. After all, that depends on a variety of factors – network congestion, the devices you're using to stream, and your individual ISP, among other things – so some people may notice a slight change and others will not. If you're paying for a 4K tier you'll still get a 4K stream, however; it just might be at a lower bitrate than previously.

Right now there's no current talk of potential changes for Netflix's streaming bitrates in the US.