The EU has called on streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube to limit their services in order to prevent the continent’s broadband networks from crashing as tens of millions of people start working from home.
Until now, telecoms companies have been bullish that internet infrastructure can withstand the drastic change in online behaviour brought about by the coronavirus outbreak.
But on Wednesday evening, Thierry Breton, one of the European commissioners in charge of digital policy, said streaming platforms and telecoms companies had a “joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet” during the crisis.
The EU said streaming platforms should consider offering only standard definition, rather than high-definition, programmes and users should be responsible about their data consumption.
There are worries that domestic broadband connections, which were designed to cope only with evening surges in traffic, may not be able to handle long days of adults engaging in video conferencing and children taking online classes or logging on to play games or watch movies.
Even big technology groups have recognised that they are struggling with the shifts in traffic. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told reporters on Wednesday that the social media company was experiencing “surges” in the use of certain services, including a doubling in the use of calls over its WhatsApp and Messenger apps.
Usage is “on a sustained basis” well beyond its annual spike at New Years’, he said, adding that managing this was “a challenge”. He added: “We need to make sure we are on top of this from an infrastructure perspective.”
EU net neutrality laws forbid any throttling of entertainment services, such as Netflix or the games site Twitch, but a number of telecoms executives from across the continent said there was room for co-operation to safeguard the system.
One executive at a multinational telecoms group said that companies needed to mitigate any “Fortnite frenzy”, saying: “Telcos are discussing ways to work alongside gaming businesses to make sure these events are planned for and managed, essentially flattening the connectivity curve.”
Scott Petty, chief technology officer at Vodafone, which owns both a mobile and fixed network used by businesses in the UK, argued that “peak hour” in terms of traffic now stretched from about noon to 9pm.
He also highlighted what are likely to be popular new offers, such as Disney’s new streaming platform, and movies from Universal Pictures, which are being released online to make up for the closure of cinemas.
In Italy, the first country to enact a full lockdown, there has been a three-fold increase in the use of video conferencing, which, alongside streaming and gaming, drove a 75 per cent rise in residential data traffic across broadband and mobile networks during the weekend, according to Telecom Italia.
“It is not a deluge, but it is a very large increase,” said Johan Ottosson, the head of international business at the Swedish telecoms company Telia.
The Spanish telecoms industry issued a warning at the start of the week to urge consumers to ration their internet usage by streaming and downloading more in off-peak hours.
It also asked customers to use their old landline phones for voice calls and avoid mobile networks, which have seen a 50 per cent rise in the amount of data they are handling in recent days.
It is the mobile networks that have shown the most signs of strain. Data compiled by speed test company Ookla show that broadband speeds in China and Italy have held up but mobile networks have struggled.
In the UK, telecoms executives held a conference call last Thursday to discuss a fault that left hundreds of thousands of customers unable to connect calls to people on other mobile networks. The number of voice calls had risen 30 per cent and overloaded the systems.
John Graham, chief technology officer at Cloudflare, the US web infrastructure company, said that while patterns of internet access were changing, there has not yet been a significant global slowdown. “[It] looks like there’s enough capacity. Nothing to indicate that this will cause a problem,” he said.
A Netflix spokesperson acknowledged the potential issue but pointed to the existing tools it already provides to internet service providers, which allow them to store its library closer to customers, thereby easing some of the burden on the internet’s backbone.
“Commissioner Breton is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that the internet continues to run smoothly during this critical time,” the company said. “We’ve been focused on network efficiency for many years, including providing our open connect service for free to telecommunications companies.”
Netflix’s “adaptive streaming” technology also adjusted the resolution of a video according to available bandwidth in the home or local area, it added.
YouTube declined to comment.