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In what could be a harbinger of things to come in the United States, the European Union has asked Netflix to tap the breaks on its download speeds in order to reduce network bandwidth now that millions of people have committed to staying home.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton tweeted Wednesday night that he spoke with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about lowering the service’s streaming speeds. It’s part of an effort to encourage people and companies to switch back to standard definition, instead of high definition (let alone ultra-crisp 4K), when it’s not necessary in order to keep the pipelines flowing to all. The request raises the possibility of streaming content reverting to 20th century-level picture quality during the crisis in some areas.

In a statement obtained by EW, Netflix replied, “Commissioner Breton is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that the Internet continues to run smoothly during this critical time. We’ve been focused on network efficiency for many years, including providing our open connect service for free to telecommunications companies.”

What that means is Netflix currently uses “adaptive streaming” which automatically adjusts picture quality based on a network’s capacity. The company has also distributed hubs of its content on servers worldwide so shows can be delivered locally and quickly rather than all steaming from one central source. In other words, Netflix has already taken steps to not be a bandwidth hog, though because of those steps we could see streaming quality reduced in some areas during the crisis regardless of whether the U.S. asks streamers like Netflix to scale back.

 

Here in the U.S., carriers have suspended data caps to help people communicate during the outbreak, but our broadband capability is going to be taxed. According to The New York Times, “internet networks are set to be strained to the hilt” with “serious consequences, not just for the performance of our broadband networks but also for student access to education and the security of corporate data and networks.” The U.S. has a strong infrastructure to handle such pressure compared to many other countries, but rural areas, in particular, could experience performance issues.

“We just don’t know” how the infrastructure will fare, said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission told the Times. “What is sufficient bandwidth for a couple of home computers for a husband and wife may not be sufficient when you add students who are going to class all day long operating from home.”

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