Netflix could call out UK ISPs over streaming slow down

julia kukiewicz
By Julia Kukiewicz

netflix: buffering©iStock.com/sd619

NETFLIX could soon name and shame UK broadband providers that slow down movies.

ISPs are to blame when Netflix streaming buffers or drops, the streaming giant said in a post on their UK blog yesterday, and they don't intend to keep quiet about it.

"Some broadband providers argue that our actions, and not theirs, are causing a degraded Netflix experience," Joris Evers, head of Communications for Europe at Netflix says in the post.

"Netflix does not purposely select congested routes. We pay some of the world's largest transit networks to deliver Netflix video right to the front door of an ISP. Where the problem occurs is at that door - the interconnection point - when the broadband provider hasn't provided enough capacity to accommodate the traffic their customer requested."

Buffering warnings on the way

In the past week, Netflix's push for what they term 'transparency' on broadband congestion has led to them adding ISP names to their buffering messages in the US in areas that they consider to be congested.

netflix buffering version

SOURCE: DSL Reports screenshot 4/6/14.

In their post, Netflix say they're now evaluating rolling out this trial more broadly.

In the UK and the US, Netflix rank ISPs by their streaming speeds every month already, an exercise that tells us a lot about ISPs' role in streaming.

As you can see below, the speed differences between the providers tend to be small, even though we know that, for example, Virgin Media broadband is going to be far faster on test than TalkTalk's on average.

netflix isp speed index

SOURCE: Netflix.

That's because video streaming speeds are strongly affected by Netflix specific factors like the quality of the video they're providing and the codecs they're using to provide it.

For each household, factors like the computer being used to stream and wi-fi also play a significant role in whether videos will buffer or drop.

That's not to say that broadband providers' traffic management or fair use policies and, crucially here, the way they handle the connection to the Netflix Content Delivery Network (CDN) aren't important, they are.

But buffering messages aren't just about Netflix calling out ISPs. They're part of an ongoing war the provider is fighting on Net Neutrality.

Neutral Net debate

Netflix has been at the centre of the American debate on Net Neutrality, the principle that networks should treat all traffic on their network equally.

Earlier this year, they signed multimillion dollar deals with first Comcast and then Verizon to ensure that Netflix streaming would go into the ISPs' fast lane and ensure that their customers could watch the movies they'd paid for.

Now, they're denouncing those same deals.

"ISP tolls are wrong because they raise costs, stifle innovation and harm consumers," Netflix say in their post. "ISPs should provide sufficient capacity into their network to provide consumers the broadband experience for which they pay."

SOURCE: Youtube/Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a great primer on US Net Neutrality (but, warning, with swearing).

Coming to the UK?

Whether or not the UK gets buffering messages calling out our ISPs, our debate over Net Neutrality will have a very different tone.

In the US, the huge market power the ISPs have - often either Comcast or Verizon are the only option - allows them to effectively shake down big sites.

In the UK, we might only have four big broadband providers but the competition between those four, and challenger ISPs with big names like EE, gives the ISPs less power to demand cash.

Undoubtedly some would like to, though.

It's no secret that Netflix puts a huge strain on the broadband networks. According to a Sandvine report released last month, Netflix is the second largest source of traffic during peak evening hours, accounting for over 17.8% of downstream fixed access traffic, in the UK and Ireland despite only launching here in 2012.

And while Netflix originally launched with support for up to 720p HD video streams, requiring a stable connections of just 2Mb, they've been slowly adding higher quality options.

1080p (5Mb needed) has been available for a while, Super HD (7Mb needed) launched in September and 4K (15Mb connection, or, Netflix say, at least 50Mb headline, needed) is coming soon.

If ISPs demand ask Netflix to pay a toll to help them provide connections good enough for that kind of quality, there's little in UK law or regulation to stop them.

In the UK and Europe, regulators say that competition will be enough for a 'neutral enough' internet, without intervention.

For example, in Ofcom's 2014 annual plan the communications regulator says that it will continue to monitor traffic management but essentially thinks that ISPs should be free to do what they like, as long as they keep customers informed.


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