Netflix Claims Users Will Still Get HD and Ultra HD Streams Amid U.K., Europe Bandwidth Crunch — but With Lower Quality

The Crown Season 3 Netflix
Courtesy of Des Willie / Netflix

Netflix is squeezing back video bit rates to reduce the strain on bandwidth-stressed networks worldwide, starting in Europe and the U.K.

But the company is telling customers in affected regions that, technically speaking, they’ll still be able to stream HD and even Ultra HD content — just that the video will be delivered with lower image quality.

Netflix is targeting a temporary 25% reduction in overall bandwidth consumption to ease overloaded networks during the coronavirus crisis, responding to a plea by the European Union. The company this week started the cutbacks in Italy and Spain, where networks have been the hardest hit, and “we’re now deploying this across the rest of Europe and the UK,” Ken Florance, Netflix’s VP of content delivery, wrote in a blog post Saturday evening.

According to Florance, “the action we’ve taken maintains the full range of video resolutions. So whether you paid for Ultra-High Definition (UHD), High Definition (HD), or Standard Definition (SD), that is what you should continue to get (depending on the device you are using).” To chop bandwidth utilization, Netflix for the next 30 days has “removed the highest-bandwidth streams,” i.e., those with the best quality, he said.

“If you are particularly tuned into video quality you may notice a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution,” Florance wrote. “But you will still get the video quality you paid for.”

To some, Netflix’s explanation rings hollow.

Customers in Europe and the U.K. have complained that image-degraded HD and Ultra HD content is not the same thing. “Whilst I understand why you have reduced quality of your streaming, why are you still charging people full amounts for 4K UHD when you have reduced the quality? Your business ethics are wrong,” Michael Knight, a VFX artist and movie poster designer, said in a tweet Sunday.

Netflix is arguing that it will deliver video in the resolution for each format: For SD, that’s 800 x 600 pixels; HD is 1920 x 1080; and UHD is 3840 x 2160. The issue is that by limiting HD and UHD to less-than-optimal compression rates, video streams will have lower picture quality, including blurring, blockiness (pixelation) and color degradation.

Netflix isn’t alone in clamping down on streaming video bit rates: Others joining the EU-led cause include YouTube, Amazon, Apple and Disney, which like Netflix said it is aiming for a 25% reduction in Disney Plus bandwidth utilization for the launch in the U.K. and Europe starting March 24.

Meanwhile, Netflix is widening the bit-rate reductions to other regions. “On the ISP side, some partners in regions such as Latin America want us to reduce our bandwidth as soon as possible,” Florance wrote in the blog post, adding that other broadband providers “want to continue with business as usual.”

The company will provide the same 25% traffic reduction to internet service providers dealing with government-mandated “shelter in place” orders, per the exec. “Our goal is simple: to maintain the quality of service for our members, while supporting ISPs who are facing unprecedented strain on their networks,” Florance wrote.

(Pictured above: Netflix’s “The Crown” Season 3 starring Olivia Colman.)