Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney and YouTube have all provisionally agreed to reduce the quality of their video streams in Europe, to ensure the availability of online services. Netflix is removing the highest quality stream for each resolution, reducing traffic by 25%. The aim is to protect networks that are experiencing increased demand due to people staying and working at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Network providers maintain they have plenty of headroom for additional demand.

European Commissioner, Thierry Breton, who was once the chief executive of France Telecom, called on Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, to limit services to standard definition where possible.

Netflix responded by saying that it had reduced Netflix traffic by 25% in Italy and Spain, which were experiencing the biggest impact. It then extended this to the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom. It will offer a similar reduction to internet service providers in other regions on request.

Netflix is maintaining the full range of video resolutions, so whether members paid for ultra-high definition, high definition or standard definition, they should continue to receive that, depending on their device. The company has simply removed the highest bandwidth streams. It says members may still notice “a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution” but they will still get the video quality they paid for.

Amazon said: “Prime Video is working with local authorities and internet service providers where needed to help mitigate any network congestion, including in Europe where we’ve already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates whilst maintaining a quality streaming experience for our customers”.

Disney, which is due to launch its Disney+ service in the United Kingdom and most major European markets on 24 March, has agreed to reduce its overall data rate by 25%. At the request of the French government it has also agreed to delay its launch there until 7 April.

“In the coming days, we will be monitoring internet congestion and working closely with internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand,” said Kevin Mayer, the chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at the Walt Disney Company.

YouTube said: “We are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default”. Users will still be able to manually select high definition.

Meanwhile, some internet service providers point out that their networks can cope with increased demand.

BT said that while daytime traffic was up by up to 60%, it was still only around half the average evening peak and nowhere near the highest previous peak it has seen, which was driven by videogame updates and streaming football.

“The UK’s communications infrastructure is well within its capacity limits, and has significant headroom for growth in demand,” said Howard Watson, the chief technology and information officer for BT.

While doubtless many people will be turning to online video services while they are isolating themselves from others, it is helpful for these services to suggest that networks are struggling to cope with demand.

Although industry commentators like to talk about changes in viewing behaviour, the imposed changes in behaviour through social distancing may result in increased usage of online video services that could become habitual.