The Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is keeping people at home, and that's caused a significant increase in internet usage as people stream movies, play games, and otherwise try to come up with ways to pass the time. To help alleviate the resulting strain on infrastructure, CNN says that Netflix has agreed to reduce the bit rate—and thus the quality—of all its streams in the European Union for the next 30 days.
The decision came in response to a request from EU officials, who also asked Netflix users in European nations to stop watching high-definition streams in order to reduce the load. EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said in statement that "all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation."
"I welcome the very prompt action that Netflix has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the Internet during the Covid-19 crisis while maintaining a good experience for users," Breton said.
Rather than simply eliminating HD or 4K streams, a Netflix rep said the company will reduce the bit rate of all its streams, which will cut its bandwidth usage by about 25 percent. The reduction will ensure "good quality service for our members," the rep said, although some users may notice "a reduction in perceptible video quality."
Streaming video can eat up monstrous amounts of bandwidth in a serious hurry: The Netflix website says that streaming at standard definition will consume about 700MB per hour per device, compared to up to 3GB per hour for HD streams, and 7GB per hour at Ultra HD. A 2019 report by network analyst firm Sandvine says that video streaming accounts for more than 60 percent of "total downstream volume worldwide," with Netflix alone responsible for 12.6 percent of downstream data volume in the first half of 2019.
There's no word yet on whether Netflix will reduce its bitrates in the US. I've emailed the company to ask, and will update if I receive a reply.