Wall Street Journal Manages To Make The Netflix, ISP Streaming Kerfuffle Even Muddier

from the yes-I-said-kerfuffle dept

Major ISPs have slowly seen their Netflix streaming experience deteriorate over the last six months, major carriers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T all dropping like a stone in the Netflix ISP streaming ranking index. We’ve discussed how, despite a bevy of well-intentioned claims, these ISPs are intentionally throttling connections for their own gains, there’s still not really enough evidence to conclusively prove ISPs are up to no good here. Much of the network data just isn’t publicly available, and there’s an ocean of peering and CDN relationships between you, Netflix and your ISP that muddy the waters further.

That said, the Wall Street Journal this week complicated things somewhat with a report on the streaming shenanigans that offers this curious, anonymously-sourced paragraph, which suggests big ISPs are letting peering links saturate intentionally:

“Until the standoff gets resolved, the bulk of Netflix’s traffic continues to flow across Internet intermediaries, including low-cost carrier Cogent Communications Group. People familiar with Cogent’s and Netflix’s thinking say the cable and telephone companies are delaying upgrading existing connections. Executives at major broadband providers, meanwhile, privately blame the traffic jam on Netflix’s refusal to distribute its traffic more efficiently.”

Again though, nobody can prove any of this because the network and peering data needed to do so is held tightly by all parties involved. Peering disputes generally involve core Internet companies agreeing to exchange equal amounts of data at hand-off points, often without compensation under confidential agreements. Historically, there have always been occasional skirmishes between companies as that balance gets out of whack. In recent years, those battles have intensified as last mile ISPs like Comcast have pushed for significantly more money to carry traffic, as we saw with the Comcast Level 3 peering fight from a few years ago.

In these disputes it has always been a goal to make the other guy look like the greedy one for leverage, though the Netflix problems have reached a new level. Netflix offers ISPs free access to their own Open Connect Content Delivery Network, which improves streaming performance. Larger ISPs have refused to join, not wanting to give what they see as a competitor to their own services (like Verizon RedBox streaming) any leg up, instead relying on their own CDNs that, theoretically, should offer equally decent performance. That those ISPs are suddenly seeing such dismal streaming performance suggests someone along the chain is being either cheap, incompetent, or is up to no good. Potentially all three.

Incumbent ISPs don’t exactly have what you would call a stellar reputation for playing nice with disruptive companies or competitors, thus the theory that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are intentionally letting these peering points saturate then pointing the finger at Netflix in the hopes of making them look bad. If that’s the goal it’s not working: data released this week suggests that Netflix just reached a three year high in customer satisfaction — despite the price hike and Qwikster nonsense of a few years back. If the goal is to make Netflix look stupid, it doesn’t appear to be working so far, and as the lowest rated industry in these kinds of rankings, it’s probably futile for pay TV companies to try.

The whole mess is a good example of how net neutrality violations, should they occur, might not knock you over the head with their obviousness as traditional discourse has suggested. In fact, they might not even be provable. ISPs are too smart, and too wary of getting socked with new regulations. Instead, what you’ll see is gatekeeper abuses dressed up under the guise of legitimate technical issues. Verizon Wireless, for example, blocked activation of Google’s Nexus 7 tablet on their LTE network for six months, blaming Google and obscure technical certification issues (while selling users their own, inferior tablet in the interim). Wireless carriers also blocked Google Wallet from devices for proclaimed security reasons, while at the same time pitching their own, Isis mobile payment platform.

People were quick to cry foul in both instances. Do incumbents have a history of this sort of thing? Yes. Can you prove carriers were up to no good in either instance? No. It all makes the point that you probably could get away with net neutrality violations without regulators batting an eyelash. You just need to be a little bit clever about it — with a dash or two of believable technical jargon for good measure. It also makes the point that with real neutrality violations inhabiting such murky territory, we’re going to see a lot more people crying net neutrality wolf — which only helps those engaged in anti-competitive shenanigans.

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Companies: at&t, comcast, netflix, verizon, wall street journal

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Comments on “Wall Street Journal Manages To Make The Netflix, ISP Streaming Kerfuffle Even Muddier”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Cogent you said? everybody who plays MMO’s has eventually run into issues with bad connections, where the diagnosis always pointed out cogent as the culprit. I can’t say I’m surprised that other services now experience issues as well. Cogent unfortunately is cheap (and only cheap, no redeeming qualities otherwise) and therefore popular, and as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

cogent are a bunch of incompetent fucks who can’t get their network in order even if their life would depend on it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: 3mpbs

Oh, how times have changed. In the late ’80s/early ’90s, New Zealand and Australia had famously bad and slow connections to the internet backbone. Well, there was only one trunk connection that carried all the traffic, and it was overloaded.

We always felt sorry for you guys. Now, I suppose it’s your turn feel sorry for us.

JohnHuizinga says:

Comcast and Netflix

I am a a *Comcast and Netflix subscriber. if I use my browser to link to Netflix, I am lucky to get 0.8Mbps. if I use a VPN to link through another server I get well over 5 Mbps and can enjoy Netflix in HD.
presumably the problem is not Netflix but Comcast.
The VPN solves the problem on a computer wish I could use it on my Smart TV.

edpo says:

Re: Comcast and Netflix

Yes, I can’t know enough to determine if my ISP (Time Warner in Los Angeles) is throttling Netflix or other content, but when I have issues loading content I frequently switch my VPN to a foreign one, and the streaming improves. It’s crazy that, without my VPN, my Netflix will continually be buffering, but I can reroute the connection across and around the world, and start getting perfect streaming.

Qyiet (profile) says:

Re: Comcast and Netflix

Not exactly for the faint of heart, or scared of the command line. But if you want to setup a mikrotik router you could sort it so that traffic from a given MAC address was routed via a VPN. I do that in NZ for the users of the guest wifi to avoid the stupid NZ ‘skynet’ law.

Sidenote: The NZ ‘Skynet’ law is obsessed with the last public IP address.. so if a guest downloads a mp3 without the proper license I’m on the line as the owner of the last public IP address in the system. However if the last public IP address is in another country… no problem… hence the VPN for guests

Joshua Bardwell (profile) says:

Re: Comcast and Netflix

Things aren’t as simple as that. Your VPN moves your exit point to somewhere else on the Internet. If Netflix is (intentionally or not) doing a bad job of distributing its traffic, allowing peering points to saturate, then turning on your VPN may cause your traffic to come through a different peering point. In other words, as a recent Ars Technica article pointed out, it’s actually pretty hard to tell who is at fault, even if you do scrupulous A/B testing with and without a VPN.

If you want to put your entire network or a specific appliance behind a VPN, there are numerous ways to do it on the cheap, such as a router running dd-wrt, or using Windows’ Internet Connection Sharing to route your TV through a VPN from your desktop. The problem with these approaches is that VPN performance is heavily processor-speed dependent, and you may not find you can get enough speed to achieve good Netflix streams. A Microtik router is a good choice. I also recently also discovered the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter Lite, which is reported to have VPN speeds around 80 Mbps–more than fast enough for Netflix and the average home Internet connection in the US.

Anonymous Coward says:

I checked out Isis, the payment system mentioned in this article, after my favorite smoothie store offered a “buy one, get one free” unlimited promotion for any customer who signed up with Isis.

It didn’t seem to be worth the hassle. I couldn’t figure out what was in the deal for Isis, and then the requirements for participating were ridiculously high, including needing to buy a specially-designed Isis-friendly case for my iPhone. Really? I had no qualms about signing my soul over to the devil Starbucks, because their iPhone app is convenient and easy to use, but it was two thumbs down for me with Isis.

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