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Europe's internet is slowing down more than America's, and here's the reason

Vodafone
Vodafone (Image credit: Android Central)

Much of the world is at home right now. Shelter-in-place orders mean folks are working from home, kids are learning from home, and everyone is relaxing at home and watching their favorite movies and shows once the school or workday is done. And in some places, the internet is having a tough time keeping up.

It's a matter of bandwidth. Internet bandwidth isn't an unlimited resource — it depends entirely on the infrastructure that provides a path for the bits and bytes to turn into your daily Zoom staff meeting or your nightly binge-watching on Netflix. And this is one place where the U.S. has things in better shape than the E.U. — and why we're hearing about companies lowering streaming quality as a result.

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It seems strange seeing this happen. Outside of Asia, where internet speeds and bandwidth are legendary, everyone looks to the E.U. as having a more robust infrastructure and regulatory system than in North America. This is part of the problem, strangely.

In North America, we're used to our internet being consistent but a bit behind when it comes to speeds and data caps, and a bit above when it comes to pricing. The companies that connect our phones and refrigerators and televisions to the internet are not the good guys when we look at our monthly bill or when we compare things against what the equivalent service costs in Europe.

2Ku Antennas

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The only saving grace providers in the U.S. have to fall back on is how those fees are placed back into funding for new equipment. This isn't done because AT&T or Comcast wants to offer more and better service, but because they want to deliver an equivalent level of service. Each year, more and more things are connected to the internet and an increasing number of people are signing up for service, and that means more equipment needs to be bought and built lest the network degrades to a point where customers will leave.

Internet bandwidth is not an all you can eat buffet like consumers think it is.

This is a serious problem where a lot of people are close to each other like they are in New York or Chicago or even smaller cities like Atlanta or Baltimore. When millions of customers buy a second connected device, that puts a serious strain on the network. This is happening in Europe, too, and there aren't quite as many wide-open spaces to build brick buildings with microwave dishes and antennas everywhere.

Which is the E.U.'s second, and larger problem: population density. Yes, you can find wilderness and "flyover" country in the E.U. but there are more sports where folks are packed tightly simply because countries in Europe are smaller. Telecom companies and internet providers do a great job in Europe, but because they aren't (over)charging the customer the same way comparable businesses in the U.S. are, there isn't a huge pool of money to dump into upkeep and expansion. And when everyone is trying to use the internet at the same time, it shows.

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Nobody in Europe is pretending that it's going well. The European Commission has asked Netflix and Facebook and Google to limit the bitrate of streamed content, and as more people look to smaller streaming services, they too will be asked to be conservative when it comes to bandwidth because there isn't an unlimited amount of it. Austria, in particular, has gone the extra mile and "placed restrictions on the data consumption of high traffic websites" like streaming services such as Netflix.

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And it's working. It's working so well in fact that content providers are seeing the benefit of doing the same in the U.S. before it becomes a problem. While Google and Facebook and Amazon are prepared to handle the traffic because of events like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, where everyone spends the day online, the pipes that deliver it might not be able to handle it all forever. Right now I'm going to say that internet service providers in the U.S. have done a very good job of handling the unprecedented traffic demands, but surely welcome any relief that's given.

As each day passes with more and more of the country staying home and using the internet three to four times more than normal, it's important that it holds up to the strain.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

25 Comments
  • Instead of asking entertainment content to limit their quality, perhaps they can mandate that major news sites and facebook stop auto-playing videos. Most annoying thing ever. This way, the available capacity goes to content that is wanted.
  • ♥️ and 👍. Great idea
  • I'm with you, and make it permanent.
  • Ditto THAT! You have a 2kb article with a few 200kb pictures... attached to 4MB of ads!!
  • My alternative, or complimentary, hypothesis is that this has to do with the fact that the vast majority of people in Europe can actually afford fast, unlimited internet access. Europeans aren't as used to having to scrimp for a data allowance as Americans are, and it is less of a luxury item to have a connection at all. Most relatively poor people can afford to have a decent connection at home. Unfortunately everyone's using those connections at once now and, as you say, there isn't always enough bandwidth to go around. For my own personal usage experience, here in the UK (which is part of Europe, fight me) I had a few hiccups with both internet and power when this all started, but they've been solid for the last couple of weeks.
  • Lol... No. Haven't been to the US lately? Huh... Even people on Welfare can get Unlimited Data on the T-Mobile network for like $40/mo. through Wal-Mart. Owning a smartphone is not a luxury. Those people even have iPhones. Carriers give them away even on pre-paid plans, these days. GTFO of here with that stupidity, based on laughable assumptions. Every carrier in the US has been planning for this, because we saw what happened to AT&T's network back in the day when the iPhone was new and it practically destroyed AT&T's network in large metros with high population density - like New York and Los Angeles. The article is correct. The lower 48 has a land mass larger than Western Europe. The US simply has capacity demands lower than Western Europe spread out over a larger geographical area. This means that less people are going to feel the effects of capacity demands during an event like this.
  • When U.S. companies charge customers a particular price and allocate money to "dump into upkeep and expansion", that's a natural part of capacity planning, not "(over)charging". This is how you keep your infrastructure ready for extraordinary demand within reasonable fiscal limits. This *is* what our profession does.
  • Yeah, this article is full of convoluted, tortured logic.
  • Let me get this straight. America's internet is working better than Europe's, so you want to regulate ours the way they do? When regulation is "strangely" party of the problem? It's not strange to me. No thank you.
  • Jerry is all for big government controlling everything... 
  • I think the US advantage is a more robust fiber infrastructure and backbone.
    The claim that the we are "used to" slower speed does not apply unless you live on a farm... or have AT&T 😉.
    In the US, people sometimes choose a slower speed for financial reasons, but that does not mean the capability is not there.
    I'm at home with an unlimited 200Mb pipe that usually clocks at over 220, and I'm slow compared to many of our neighbors who have 1 Gig. At work we have 239 IDF's (network closets) with up to 576 gig connections to the desktop, and every IDF switch has a direct 10 gig fiber connection to our redundant distribution cores which have eight power connection on separate UPS and house circuits. The system is robust enough that 11,000 employees can work using remote servers though multiple border routers and ISP's, and latency to servers halfway across the country is usually less than 20ms. I wish I could post a picture of some of the network racks I've built out myself, as some of them are almost beautiful if I do say so myself.
  • As someone who does live in an internet desert, thanks a lot. Metro areas may be fine, and have good linkage between them. I don't know that because I have never lived near enough to get it. Suburbs are crap. Outer suburbs are crappier. Rural is still touting DSL lines in the mail last week. Competition is not quite non-existant, but the same fiber cable is driving all the providers one way or another. It gets cut occasionally.
  • It's hard to tell, but I hope you didn't take my post as an insult. I guess "rural area" would have been more accurate, but most of the rural in my state is farmland, so there was no insult intended. We used to have a doctor's office in an outlying area that had a 32kbps DSL line, but that was a several years ago. The remote offices are not on our primary backbone of course, so they all get whatever is available, but we "right-size" the circuit. They don't need a half gig connection if all they do is send an occasional email. Major facilities do get fiber, but I responded to a network outage and AT&T could not figure out why the circuit was down, until we found out a train had derailed and the locomotive dug into the ground far enough to hit the fiber lines. Took a day or two to fix that.
  • Why would the surge continue to get worse? If it can handle everyone home today why not tomorrow?
  • Completely agree. The only reason would be complete lockdown, as there are still people not doing home office.
  • They aren't "overcharging" in the US. They are literally using that $$ to keep their networks up to par. Yeah I mean the EU can get those nice speeds, until lots of people use the network (see current crisis), and then it screeches to a halt. I'm all for saving money, but would much rather know the network will hold up in times of crisis rather than the networks being a little cheaper each month. Come on Jerry..... 
  • Dunno what you've been reading but the European internet has not screeched to a halt. They have implemented precautions so that it wouldn't happen.
  • Eh asking big providers like netflix and others to limit streaming ( https://www.businessinsider.com/eu-netflix-hd-video-internet-strain-coro... ) seems like their network can't hold up. They were reactionary after the fact of people being at home. Not seeing those same issues in the US. 
  • Thanks for the link. Also, if you read what you linked, the EU commissioner wanted to "secure Internet access for all.". Nothing has screeched to a halt. I still stand by my point A bit off-topic:
    https://www.engadget.com/2011-06-28-why-is-european-broadband-faster-and...
  • I'm still getting good speeds including getting 4K streaming with Amazon Prime no problem. US internet is better than people think. It's the higher prices and crummy customer support that is a problem. Also the USA is a huge mass with far larger area to cover. It's easy forma country like South Korea to upgrade since most of the population is in an area smaller than a single average state.
  • No problem: https://www.speedtest.net/result/c/1ffa142a-6453-47c8-8e1c-806ee856f73e
  • I cannot see any point of this text than making people in the US feeling a bit better than Europeans. The statement about the "saving grace" of higher fees = more robust internet in the US completely lacks facts here. Because I'm quite sure that Jerry don't think that ISPs in Europe don't invest part of their revenues in improving the infrastructure / equipments. And just a simple internet search shows that population density in Europe is quite close to the US. Also that Europe has more spots of high pop.density is not backed by any numbers here.
    My take is just that Europe got hit hard by the virus a few weeks before the US. Generally, it would be interesting to see numbers of how many more are doing home office in this situation. Just anecdotally, here in Switzerland I have never had any issue with my home or work internet. A friend's ISP even upped costumers speed from whatever to 1 Gb/s for free! I like you Jerry, but this text was not that well written. Keep healthy, dude!
  • So capitalism is working in America?
  • There is no such a thing as "Europe". Internet access varies quite a bit across Europe. Up here in north my 1000/100 is still delivering ~Gbit/s and I can get way above 500+ Mbit/s across sites in Europe. Also the carriers interviewed by press about a week ago said that they do see some growth but it's more about prime time traffic catching up evenings -- they're not worried and don't plan to do anything. All our Internet connections are uncapped and so are mobile subscriptions (a typical mobile subscription is uncapped when used within the Nordics and Baltics, and there's about 10-30 GB/month cap when roaming across rest of EU). The local streaming providers have not lowered the streaming quality.
    (My uncapped mobile subscription costs just 5 eur/month (about 5.5 usd) -- a bit special but I wouldn't pay more than 20 eur/mo for a mobile subscription. The fixed broadband is a bit more expensive at 50 eur/mo, Gbit/s is still considered a bit special and the sweet spot is at 400-500 Mbit/s) The EU thing is politics and presumably initiated by some politicians in a country with less stellar Internet access (Germany perhaps). Totally unnecessary and considering the CDN's, could have been implemented at carrier-basis.
  • .. and to showcase the situation, one of the ISP's has upgraded 17000 of their consumer customers to 500/500 until the Covid-19 pandemia is over. If one already had 500/500 subscription, you've been upgraded to 1000/1000. The carrier's are not worried about capacity here.