Netflix and the battle for net-neutrality
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
The latest monthly index from movie and TV streaming, Netflix, which ranks which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) it claims provide the best prime time Netflix streaming experience in Ireland, makes interesting reading. UPC came out top this time, rising three places since the last survey in April, with an average streaming speed of 3.01Mbps.
Netflix says it carries out the survey to provide “transparency and help consumers understand the Internet access they’re actually getting from their ISPs”. In reality, however, the naming and shaming (or carrot and stick depending on how you look at it) exercise is all part of Netflix’s strategy to get ISPs to up their game and provide more capacity on their networks, so that it can push its service out to more and more new customers, without any degradation of the picture and sound quality for existing users.
It’s a pretty innocuous, arguably laudable project – given that we all need and want better broadband speeds, which all too often don’t equate with what we are actually paying for. But last month, Netflix in the US upped the ante, kicking with full force the hornet’s nest it had been gently poking with a stick over the previous few years by way of the index.
That kick involves Netflix trialling a system that sees a message pop up on the user’s screen when one of the videos it is streaming is interrupted by “buffering”. The message says the service is being degraded due to a lack of capacity on that broadband provider’s network. Netflix says it is testing the system on several hundred thousand users across the US, wherever there is significant and persistent network congestion. The test is scheduled to end on June 16th, after which Netflix will evaluate rolling it out more broadly.
But if the desired effect was to rattle cages at the big ISPs, it worked. An angry Verizon described the tactic as a PR stunt, and sent Netflix a cease and desist letter, threatening legal action if it didn’t. Verizon claims the messages are deceptive, with blame for slow streaming actually falling at the door of Netflix.
Verizon said Netflix tries to save money by using middleman to distribute the content, while at the same time knowing some of them have issues with congestion in some networks. Unsurprisingly, Netflix countered, claiming it doesn’t purposely select congested routes, and outlined various technical reasons why the blame lies with Verizon.
In any event, Netflix says it will stop sending the messages, bringing the public spat to an end. For now.
But this is a debate which is not going away. Netflix’s annoyance stems from the fact that in April it reluctantly agreed to a deal that sees it pay fees or tolls to Verizon and Comcast Corp for preferential, more direct and therefore faster access to their networks. Netflix says this is double-dipping, because the ISPs are not only charging users for sending and receiving content, they are also now charging content providers a premium for the ability to deliver that content preferentially.
At the heart of the argument is the issue of net-neutrality – the principle that ISPs and governments should treat all data on the internet equally and not levy extra charges for capacity-heavy content, like for example, video streaming. It’s a principle which the internet has been based on and has developed around – until now. Advocates claim it is what has enabled the internet to innovate and grow up to now, and which will drive its expansion into the future – as long as the concept remains intact. If it doesn’t, the argument goes that it will lead to a multi-laned internet, where those who have to pay the most and have most to pay (i.e. the biggest internet companies) will get the best service, and those who can’t (small companies and the rest of us) won’t.
That seems increasingly likely, following last month’s decision by the US Federal Communications Commission in the US to open up to public debate new rules on an open internet. These plans, which are likely to be adopted, would prevent ISPs from knowingly slowing data, while allowing content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Critics say this would be akin to discrimination on the internet, and would mean an end to net-neutrality.
Whatever happens across the Atlantic, for now the principle looks set to remain intact here, thanks to the decision in April by the European Parliament to back a draft law which would see retention of the policy (although the Council of Ministers has yet to have its say).
But this, of course, would bring us in an opposite direction to that which the US appears to be taking. And history tells us that when it comes to technology policy, Europe is more of a follower than a leader.
With the likely result that companies like Netflix may not be able to prevent the tide from reaching Europe for long.