Saturday, February 22, 2014

Untangling the Netflix Streaming Catastrophe

Netflix is supposed to be streaming to me in HD, but, during prime viewing hours, I'm getting only a 560kbs bit rate, which is substantially worse than VCR (i.e. my picture looks like absolute crap). Yet speed tests indicate that the bit rate from my Internet service provider, Verizon, is at 17-25 mb/sec - more than enough for HD video streaming. Indeed, Amazon streaming, YouTube, and all the other services work fine. The only problem is with Netflix. And even Netflix streams beautifully (4.3 mb/sec, 1920x1080) the moment the clock hits 1:00 am - i.e. the end of Netflix's prime time.

I called up Netflix, whose rep just drowned me in ditzy happy talk about how important my satisfaction is to them. There wasn't much they could say. Obviously, my set-up is not the problem, given that all other services work perfectly all the time and Netflix works perfectly outside of prime time.

Anyway, this is no small matter for me. You see, I'm currently catching up on House of Cards, and I want to watch it during prime time, and I want it to look crisp. So, as an imperious entertainment-addled first-worlder, my only possible response is along the lines of "THIS SHALL NOT STAND!!!".

I've spent hours reading up, and discovered that I'm not alone. There's a public furor over Netflix streaming quality, and it's extremely difficult to pinpoint a villain. Here are the various facets in a nutshell:

1. In mid-January, our beloved government took a swipe at net neutrality. Net neutrality means that service providers are not allowed to play favorites - i.e. cannot throttle certain services because they're popular (and therefore more costly accommodate), or because that service hasn't paid them bribes, or because a service happens to compete with core businesses of the service providers (for example, the cable companies offering much of our nation's broadband services directly compete with Netflix). Net neutrality is not dead, but it's been wounded some.

2. Just after that ruling, Verizon reportedly insisted that Netflix pay for delivery of its huge data stream (up to 25% of Internet traffic at times). That's not how the Internet works, so of course Netflix has not paid. And rumor has it that Verizon has retaliated by throttling Netflix's data speed. Or maybe not.

3. Verizon insists it's not throttling Netflix. But their statement was very carefully worded, leaving ample weasel room.

4. Among the weaselly recourses, there's a sneaky way service providers can degrade transmission of a given Internet service without deliberately throttling it (which in some cases is still illegal, and which would certainly ignite customer rage if ever revealed). Rather than deliberately throttle, they can simply direct certain services through their most outdated and overloaded switches and channels. There's no law saying content providers need to keep all their equipment in tip-top shape, or that they need to give equal access to their best routings. So...defacto throttling, while breaking no laws. Yes, the mobster approach ("I'm not saying I'm gonna deliberately break your knees, but I know how much you enjoy walking around...").

5. Bizarrely, Netflix itself recently insisted that Verizon isn't throttling them. That, of course, doesn't mean that Verizon isn't throttling them. Netflix has a critical interest in denying that any of this is happening, regardless of whether or not it's their fault. If their service doesn't work - even due to other entities - that's horrendous for their stock price (which has been touchy lately). In fact, a lot of the rumor-mongoring was likely the doing of activist shorts trying to drive down Netflix's stock price. There's more and more of that sort of thing.

So what's going on with my Netflix service? One explanation is the "Complex Internet" theory, which notes that any given Internet service must pass through many jumps to get to my house, and any of those intermediary jumps might randomly slow things down. I reject that explanation here, because, again, service is always bad in prime time, and always great outside it. That's not entropy.

Another explanation is that this is the natural result of lots of neighbors, also on Verizon, slowing down the Internet by using Netflix and other services at night. But, again, my Internet doesn't slow down. Even during prime time, my connection is never less than a healthy 17-25 mb/sec.

After diving down this unexpectedly deep and labyrinthian rabbit hole, my conclusion is that it's probably Netflix's fault. If Verizon was retributively throttling Netflix, then it would make little sense for them to deliver Netflix so beautifully outside of prime time. Furthermore, if Verizon was trying to avoid the appearance of throttling, the degradation wouldn't be so steep and so sharply timed. Finally, even Verizon's most bitter accusers are citing throttling rates of around 14%, but I'm seeing my service consistently degraded by about 90% (per stats in the first paragraph, above). Nobody accuses any service provider of that level of throttling.

So it seems to me that Netflix is having trouble meeting demand. Complaints appear to have started building last fall, right about when Netflix started promising much more ambitious video quality in its streams, and also when it started to became apparent that their scheme to have service providers cache for them wasn't going to catch on.

I haven't shorted Netflix, btw.... ;)

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