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Netflix Lowers Video Quality to Aid Broadband ISP Congestion

Thursday, March 19th, 2020 (8:53 pm) - Score 5,737
netflix uk unlimited broadband movie streaming

In a somewhat unusual development Netflix, the global internet video streaming giant, has responded to some concerns about broadband congestion in other European countries by agreeing with the EU to lower the quality (bitrate) of its videos for the next 30 days (i.e. easing the strain on fixed line ISPs and mobile operators).

The move will result in the company reducing video bitrates across all of their streams, although they have yet to say if those paying extra for the highest quality are going to be compensated. Netflix have also yet to confirm if this will apply to the United Kingdom, where the majority of fixed line providers have yet to really struggle with managing increased demand (we’ve covered this here).

Indeed all of the biggest UK providers will already be using specialised Content Delivery Networks (CDN) to effectively cache online videos closer to their end-users, which helps to ease the burden of video streaming services on their networks and wider capacity (not only Netflix but many others too, such as YouTube, Amazon Prime, NOW TV etc.).

Netflix’s video streams generally aren’t massive data hogs by modern standards, although they can be quite consistent in their data use, especially in busy family homes. A low quality Standard Definition (SD) stream on their service can use between just 0.5Mbps and up to 3Mbps of speed, while High Definition (HD) prefers around 5Mbps and 25Mbps is recommended for 4K (most people use their HD service).

Nevertheless a few eyebrows were raised earlier today after Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market (and Ex-CEO of France Telecom), suggested that Netflix could help congestion in some countries – like Italy – by reducing their video quality to SD.

Clearly Thierry has never tried to watch SD video on one of today’s large screen 4K TVs (it’s a fairly poor experience) or read much about how online content distribution actually works, but despite this Netflix has agreed to reduce their streaming quality, albeit not all the way down to SD and they’re still promising a “good” quality service.

A Netflix Spokesperson said:

“Following the discussions between commissioner Thierry Breton and Reed Hastings – and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus – Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days. We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

Streaming video content is a fact of life for most internet providers and indeed it accounts for around 70% of all consumer data traffic. Ultimately, due to the nature of how such content is typically distributed to end-users, we have our doubts about the impact that this will have. On the other hand ISPs are unlikely to object since there’s no real downside for them and Netflix will take most of the flack, if there is any.

In terms of what this actually means, well.. we’ll have to wait and see, but by reducing the bitrates what they really mean is that a higher level of compression will be applied to their streams. The result is likely to be that, while the resolution will probably remain the same, you might instead notice more artefacts in the quality of the video (distortions, fuzzy areas, more blur etc.).

Equally it’s possible that they may apply extra compression to the audio stream too and that would perhaps be less noticeable, although audio tends to only play a smaller role.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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43 Responses
  1. Mike says:

    So pay extra for HD or even more for UHD and get SD…

  2. Name says:

    I am going to ask for refund tomorrow.

    1. 125us says:

      Is that a sensible or reasonable thing to do given the crisis the world currently faces? Get some perspective.

    2. Name says:

      @125us: Stop looking for crisis in places which are not suffering it.

    3. CarlT says:

      Right. We’ve just nationalised the economy at the cost of hundreds of billions for the fun of it, much as various other nations across Europe have.

    4. Oliver says:

      Cancel with the big services that are funnelling profits back to American or other HQs and spend the money at local business instead then 🙂

    5. John Smith says:

      @125 So you wouldn’t mind doing an online-grocery-shop, to find they’d switched your best fillet steak, and sent you burgers instead, but still charged you for steak? I don’t want to subsidise anyone’s service with my subscription! I’m in the same crisis as you and everyone else! WHY do you think we should put-up with this? (A rhetorical question fella!)

  3. Stephen Wakeman says:

    So on the one hand we have all the ISPs saying that their backhaul networks are more than sufficient to cope with additional use, along with US ISPs removing data caps. On the other we have some scare mongering reduction in Netflix quality. Which is it? Either the networks can handle it or they can’t. Make your mind up. Every day we gobble up ISPs hyperbole about how their networks are next gen and super capable. But they’re obviously not are they if this sort of compromise is necessary to be safe.

    What will Netflix be doing to compensate customers who pay more money for additional streams and better quality? Are the number of streams limited too? If one household on the top tier can have 4 simultaneous streams then why can’t they have 4K quality if they’re just using 1 stream?

    Sorry, it doesn’t make sense. What’s the point of customers paying more for HD and 4K if they’re not going to get it?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      What you have here is politicians, who don’t understand how modern networks work, intersecting with a proposal that won’t do ISPs any harm and so they won’t object (it may even save some of them a bit of money), even though they were coping just fine already (certainly in the UK they have been). But remember, all networks and countries are not created equal; some EU countries have particular problems that may be less of an issue in the UK where “unlimited” allowances have been the norm for years.

      Likewise it’s sometimes easy to forget that Netflix – just like any online content provider – will also have their own capacity considerations, which can be separate from that of the ISPs.

    2. Stephen Wakeman says:

      I get that the ISP infrastructure in some parts of Europe isn’t necessarily as good as ours. There again though, the UK is regularly ranked much lower than a lot of European countries in term of availability of high speed products.

      I don’t believe the issue is Netflix’s or that they would have taken any such action were the “issue” not to have been broached politically. But for argument sake, if capacity was an issue for Netflix, then frankly I would still be expecting compensation. I pay them nearly £10 a month for on demand HD streaming. If their network is not capable of providing that to me because other people want it too, then they have oversubscribed themselves and that is surely their issue, not mine and not anybody else’s?

  4. Chris says:

    Well Netflix 4k quality was the worst before they reduced the quality. I have phoned up many times asking why is the picture so grainy. A 1080p Blu-ray looks better than Netflix 4k.

    1. Name says:

      I would suggest stop buying HiSense or Technika crap.

    2. Jamie Clark says:

      You can’t compare Netflix 4k to Blu-ray idiot Netflix 4k 6000kbps Blu-ray 21000kbps+

  5. Natural life says:

    They should just switch off this mind numbing drivel in its entirety.

  6. Dave says:

    I never knew Thierry Breton was an ISP network engineer, fancy that…!

    1. Ferrocene Cloud says:

      Sensible people in the real world don’t comment on matters they have no knowledge of.

      Politicians who don’t even understand an IP address on the other hand can’t wait to fall over themselves commenting on telling people how to run the complicated technology that makes up the Internet and ISP networks.

  7. Simon Bennett says:

    I was waiting for you to publish this story.

    I was under the impression that content providers like Netflix offer onnet cdns to ISP’s which have large enough volumes of traffic, this very much in the interest of the ISP to save on transits costs, etc.

    You can see sky talking about this at nofuk 2017.

    So it raises the question, why would the EU be asking Netflix to throttle back. Do they not have on net CDN’s or are there core networks way over subscribed, or is it the last mile?

    1. joe says:

      Because the EU is clueless here. The UK is fine, actually looking at the data most of the EU is absolutely fine. There are a few countries with more problems but those are long-standing. Lowering qual to deal (largely with Italy) is fairly daft.

    2. Ferrocene Cloud says:

      Seeing as just the other day Netflix have spun up extra CDN servers on our network, I’d find it truly baffling if they lowered the quality on our network because some under-provisioned ISP in Italy can’t run their network properly.

  8. Owen Rudge says:

    I’m looking forward to watching Disney+ in 4K next week… hopefully.

  9. Spurple says:

    So that professor who said UK networks couldn’t cope with social distancing was right. LOL.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      In the UK they all seem to be coping just fine.

    2. spurple says:

      @Mark, I defy them to tell Netflix to exclude the UK from this initiative 😉

    3. CarlT says:

      That professor needs to spend more time working in the industry and less in academia.

      The Call of Duty: Warzone release was a far bigger stressor of networks. The only time there will be issues will be when special events like that sit on top of social distancing. In and of itself social distancing isn’t a problem.

  10. André says:

    If Netflix say they’re doing this “in Europe”, doesn’t that seem fairly clear that the UK is included?
    You haven’t left the continent and they didn’t say “the EU”…

  11. Ray Woodward says:

    According to reports I read this morning, YouTube have said they too will be doing this to save bandwidth for the next month …

  12. wireless pacman says:

    Saying the ISPs have enough capacity is akin to Tescos saying they have enough loo rolls. They have until the binge watching/buying starts.

    1. joe says:

      Given they have capacity to burn in the day thats not an issue. At night its largely the same load as normal..no more than high holidays so far as I see the data.

    2. 125us says:

      No. Network capacity is not equivalent to physical product. It’s not sitting on a shelf in a warehouse waiting to be used. There are no factories running flat out to make more.

    3. joe says:

      The UK providers, data switches and the like have huge amounts of spare capacity.

    4. CarlT says:

      News to them they have ‘huge’ amounts of spare capacity, though there is some overhead there.

      Local networks in the case of Virgin Media and interconnects to BT Wholesale / GEA headends in the case of others will be where strain is felt.

      Again, though, it’ll pale in comparison to one-off events and they largely handled those okay.

    5. joe says:

      Well if you have any data otherwise Carl? I’m not seeing anything to worry about atm. They handle big peak events well enough so have to have spare built in to cope with that. I can’t see anything that suggests usage now is pushing above numbers they have planned for.

    6. CarlT says:

      Nothing I can publish though as I said there is capacity spare though not huge amounts.

      During the day it’s not a massive issue as it’s not a peak period.

      Be good to see what happens when there’s a major games release on top of normal traffic. Amazon Prime video football coverage caused the odd issue. Might see some issues here and there when a major event intersects with higher ongoing load.

      Peak time has been extended well into the daytime now.

    7. CarlT says:

      I entirely appreciate what you’re saying, though. More people working from home isn’t going to make a dent.

      It will be interesting to see what happens now social distancing has been enforced.

      It’ll drive people online more and will increase load, however I imagine any congestion will be local, not nationwide.

      As you suggested this is a pointless exercise. The UK ISPs aren’t selling gigabit for pennies and contending it like crazy as some do.

    8. joe says:

      @Carl I’m suggesting an Eu wide decision is ridiculous. if some nations have prob then deal with those. I think most UK ISPs have no real issues here. Leave it to them to manage as they need…

    9. CarlT says:

      Agreed. Operators with issues, especially mobile, should be able to manage their own networks.

      Apologies if I came across badly.


  13. Fred says:

    Well, being on Vfe 4G on a rural mast, I was a bit concerned the already poor bandwidth might be hit harder, impacting my ability to continue working from home effectively. In fact the bandwidth has doubled over the last few days. I have noticed that NordVPN and PIA are both very slow at the moment though. Still, I can work from home which is the main thing.

    However, I can see the point in looking at ways to lessen impact to networks where there is the possibility of restricting people’s ability to WFH. Whilst that may not be the case for many networks, it might well be the case for some, especially those on things like congested masts that suddenly get a lot more traffic. If that means lower picture definition for a bit then I personally think it is a price worth paying.

    Sorry, but I don’t have masses of sympathy for those who are mildly inconvenienced with this. I would like to think most responsible people would rather we prioritise the spread of infection by enabling as many people to WFH as possible? Of course, if the reduced bandwidth could be targeted towards those networks that are most at risk of congestion, rather than a blanket reduction, then that would be the best option.


    1. CarlT says:

      Your mobile provider can and will manage the traffic across their network.

      I’m not sure why everyone should be managed when ISPs can handle their own customers. It seems a gross overreaction by a politician.

      If ISPs can’t actually manage their networks under these circumstances due to net neutrality that legislation is broken.

  14. Andrew Curry says:


    It’s a typical attitude from politicians, especially EU commissioners!

    They believe we need their brilliance to keep us right during these times.

    In reality he clearly knows very little about how the internet works and doesn’t seem to realise that there’s an industry of professionals with many thousands, maybe millions of years worth of combined experience between them who know neat how to handle situations like these!

    He clearly didn’t understand that the release of Call Of Duty Warlord was more likely to be an intense strain on internet infrastructure!

  15. Ezza says:

    Well it’s now April 25th ,and they have not returned the nitrates back to what it should be . Clearly anyone can count up to 30. There seems no way to ask Netflix when this is going to be done . Clearly taking the Mickey out of the public

  16. Tony says:

    Fed up with poor quality streaming I had a chat with Netflix today and the agent said they had started removing the cap from the 15th June. He could not or would not tell me when it would be removed for my ISP, saying that was with Virgin, though I’m assuming when I ask Virgin they’ll say its with Netflix

    1. Tony says:

      It’s now back to full bitrate on my VM connection. Watched netflix last night and after it locked in to 2160 resolution at lockdown 7.62 Mbps, it then increased to 15Mbps

  17. Worldofkodi says:

    How to check NETFLIX resolution on TV Mobile Tablet TV box


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