YouTube will sacrifice streaming quality in the EU to help avert internet gridlock as tens of millions of Europeans, confined by the coronavirus outbreak, switch to working from home.
Alphabet Inc's YouTube is the second online video company after Netflix to respond to a call by the European Union industry chief Thierry Breton to cut picture quality to prevent overload.
While mobile networks are coping so far they could come under increased pressure as lockdowns to slow the pandemic become stricter and broader.
Streaming video can account for 60% or more of traffic on fixed and mobile networks and the planned Mar 24 launch of Disney+ in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland could create a new pain point.
Carriers have been told by the EU not to prioritise traffic as this would violate its net neutrality rules.
"We are making a commitment to temporarily switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default," YouTube said in a statement after Breton spoke to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
A spokesman said the decision includes Britain, which is leaving the EU, and will initially be for 30 days.
"I warmly welcome the initiative that Google has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the internet during the COVID19 crisis," Breton said in a statement.
Disney, which has 28.6 million users, had no immediate comment. It is already sending out teasers for a launch that will feature the opening two episodes of 'The Mandalorian' and the final season of 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'.
Experts warn that reducing streaming rates may only give temporary relief and the dilemma of whether to discriminate between essential and non-essential traffic will resurface.
"In an ideal world, network operators would obviously upgrade their infrastructure and invest," said Eric Brookman, chief technology officer of Extreme Networks, a U.S. network management company.
"In the short term, what network operators could do to reduce the pressure on their networks and ensure connectivity for all is to deprioritise non-essential traffic."
Telecoms providers from Vodafone to Deutsche Telekom have reported a spike in data traffic, forcing Breton to issue his pre-emptive call.
He wants networks to be able to run essential services such as healthcare and online learning for house-bound children during the coronavirus outbreak.
Netflix said it would reduce bit rates, which determine the quality and size of its audio and video files, across all its streams in Europe for 30 days, in effect cutting its traffic on European networks by around 25%.
In France, Orange's networks should be able to withstand a surge in usage due to a national lockdown, CEO Stephane Richard said, adding that the use of messaging apps like WhatsApp had increased fivefold.
Richard said Orange was in touch with France's telecoms regulator in case it saw a need later to limit access to entertainment sites to free up network space for emergency calls or other priorities.
In Austria, which has imposed regional lockdowns in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, Drei Austria said it was seeing a 50% increase in voice telephony and 15% in peak data loads.
Drei, a unit of Hutchison, welcomed the moves by Netflix and YouTube. While it had not yet made use of traffic management measures, it said it would keep that option open.
"We hope that Disney, like Netflix & YouTube, will also reduce its transmission quality, at least during the crisis," Drei told Reuters.
Not all networks are stretched, with Dutch cable operator VodafoneZiggo saying it had ample capacity and was offering its paid film channel, plus a kids film and a comedy channel, for free.