Wall Street Journal Manages To Make The Netflix, ISP Streaming Kerfuffle Even Muddier
from the yes-I-said-kerfuffle dept
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.