Netflix Neutrality

A little over a week ago, Netflix was berated by a user who assumed that the company was throttling his streaming video connection.  Slashdot picked up the story shortly afterwards, and an Engadget piece was soon to follow.

The ground shook, walls crumbled, worlds were torn asunder, Lance Armstrong fell off his bike.  Not really.

Riyad Kalla, of the Break It Down Blog began to notice that the same movie was buffering differently on his PC versus his Xbox 360 when trying to load up a “Watch Instantly” film from Netflix.  In brief, he carried out some testing opening up multiple threads to the same movie and saw his downstream speed increase and thus concluded that Netflix was throttling his connection.

But Kalla’s methodology has been questioned as his testing does not prove Netflix is shaping traffic, only that there is probably a problem somewhere down the line with his connection.  Additionally, it has been suggested that the way in which he tested, may have caused servers to think they were under DDOS attack which made the situation worse, and that he was using the old Windows Media player instead of Netflix’s new Silverlight multi-sourcing player.

But the bottom line of the whole scenario is whether a company offering a service is remaining faithful to their promise to deliver for the subscription rate their consumers are paying to receive said service?  And the implication is that Netflix is purposefully throttling the connection of specific users who partake in the viewing of a great deal of content.

About a week after the initial blog post, Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer wrote an official response for Netflix on their blog.  Hunt pointed out that,

Content from Netflix originates on CDN servers that are distributed around the US (just as our DVD shipping centers are) so that the data doesn’t have to traverse the Internet backbones to get to our customers, but instead can usually reach its destination via regional and metro networks that have much higher aggregate bandwidth.

Breaking that down, Hunt is describing the fact that Netflix’s content is disperse.  They use CDN servers (Content Delivery Network) managed by Limelight Networks, so they’re the company we ought to be looking at.

Limelight Networks is a CDN that operates a massive, private fiber optic network.  They claim to be directly connected to over 900 last-mile networks around the globe.  Because of Limelight owns this large network, their distribution doesn’t have to be  “neutral.”  In fact, it’s designed not to be.  Limelight shapes traffic on their private network to deliver content as fast as possible and to provide the absolute best experience for the end user.  That’s why services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live, Apple’s iTunes, Sony’s Playstation Network, and Netflix’s Watch Instantly use Limelight as their backend for content distribution.

But Limelight’s connections end at the user’s ISP.  At that point, net neutrality takes over, and all packets treated equally.  Congestion in this neutral last mile (or miles) can seriously deteriorate the quality of the content and the speed at which it is delivered.  This can explain the difference in speed that Mr. Kalla thought were a result of Netflix throttling his downloads.

Additionally, products like the Xbox 360, the Roku, or any of the number of current Blu-Ray players that include Netflix streaming are very different, proprietary devices.  The PCs and Macs that play Netflix movies  can have hundreds of variations.  We should expect content on these varied platforms to be displayed at varied speeds.

Hunt address this in the Netflix blog, noting that the network accessed by these various devices can even be different:

…different titles, and different encodes for different playback device types, may come from different CDNs or different servers at a particular CDN, so may have different paths and different bottlenecks. Accordingly, customers may see better performance on Xbox than their PC, or vice-versa. Equivalently, some titles may stream unaffected, while others suffer congestion. There is no purposeful discrimination between different clients – we want them all to perform very well.

So much for Netflix trying to slow anything down.  But why would they?  Competitive pressure from Hulu and other streaming services is forcing Netflix to offer the best streaming service possible, not a purposefully degraded one.  Mr. Kalla’s accusations would only make sense if Netflix weren’t in a very competitive market, but with all the video content flooding the Internet, that’s clearly not the case.

The one good thing to come out of this hype is the direct statement of intentions from Netflix’s CPO.  Now users can hold Netflix to their statements about streaming neutrality.  And they can easily hold Netflix to account by leaving their service for another, possibly free source of online video content.

The calls for regulaton may now cease.