Innovation

Coronavirus: YouTube and Netflix are tweaking their sites to assist efforts

The two major video streaming sites are taking action.

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YouTube and Netflix are planning to reduce video streaming quality in the European Union to alleviate pressure on the continent's broadband networks, it emerged Friday.

Reuters reported that YouTube, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, plans to switch visitors to a lower quality stream by default. In a statement, the company told the outlet that "we are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default." That means a step-down from the high-definition video streams previously offered to users as a default option where internet speeds allowed. The decision came hours after Netflix announced a similar move.

The two firms' decision followed a request from the European Commission to reduce quality to ease the strain on internet services, as more people work from home to practice social distancing and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Thierry Breton, the commissioner for the internal market, wrote on his Twitter page Wednesday that "to secure Internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary."

The commissioner's tweet.Twitter

Unlike YouTube, Netflix has opted to reduce the bitrate of its videos to reduce data usage. Bitrate is the number of data bits used in a video per second. A HowToGeek test in January 2018 found Netflix has a maximum bitrate of 16 megabits per second at 4K quality, which adapts to the user's internet speed. An Ultra HD Blu-ray, WhatHiFi found, can support up to 128 megabits per second. Resolution and bitrate are not the same: it's entirely possible to deliver a 4K video while taking a hit on quality by lowering the bitrate.

Netflix did not specify what this might mean for actual bitrate figures, but it did say its measures would reduce traffic by 25 percent. In a statement to the BBC, the company said:

"Following the discussions between Commissioner Thierry Breton and [Netflix chief executive] Reed Hastings, and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus, Netflix has decided to begin reducing bitrates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days."

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a radical restructuring of work in many industries, but it's unclear whether such traffic reduction measures are particularly necessary. British internet provider BT released a statement Friday explaining that its networks are built to handle this influx of homeworking, and current figures suggest the network has more than enough headroom.

The provider explained that the peak usage times in the United Kingdom are around the evening, where video games and soccer streams can push usage up to 17.5 Terabytes per second. Daytime usage is normally around five Terabytes per second, but this week it's increased 60 percent to reach peaks of up to 7.5 Terabytes per second. That's far lower than the network's peaks that it can clearly handle.

These findings may mask the fact that the evening peak could potentially rise as social distancing measures encourage more to stay at home, which would make Netflix and YouTube's contributions more vital. But from the European Union's perspective, temporarily reducing quality appears to be a welcome approach to aiding in the fightback.

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