Buffering Bummer: Are Bitter Broadband Providers Handicapping Netflix & YouTube?
It's probably no surprise to anyone that Netflix and YouTube dominate the domain of web video. Any video viewer is also probably used to watching those please wait, buffering circles go 'round while waiting for their videos to load. Tuning in to such sites during peak hours, it's no wonder why video can take a while to buffer, right? According to a recent post by Ars Technica, there's a bit more to buffering (read: suffering) than what may be immediately obvious. The real bummer is that web video doesn't have to be so slow, at least in some cases. But, due to disagreements between ISPs and major media services, sometimes it is.
Anyone who has taken the time to marvel at the variety and ease of streaming 1080p content over the web has surely also found themselves switching to 480p (or lower) accompanied by impatient, aggressive clicking and probably cursing. Buffering may always be the bad part of broadband video, but that may not always be the fault of the video service itself. From Ars Technica:
No, your ISP (probably) isn't sniffing your traffic every time you click a YouTube or Netflix link, ready to throttle your bandwidth. But behind the scenes, in negotiations that almost never become public, the world's biggest Internet providers and video services argue over how much one network should pay to connect to another. When these negotiations fail, users suffer. In other words, bad video performance is often caused not just by technology problems but also by business decisions made by the companies that control the Internet.
This isn't just bad news for internet users who hate conspiracy theories (especially when they're kinda true.) It's bad news for pretty much everybody, depending on where viewers live and which companies provide them with internet access.
These business decisions involve "peering" agreements that Internet companies make to pass traffic from one to another and negotiations over caching services that store videos closer to people's homes so they can load faster in your browser. When Internet providers refuse to upgrade peering connections, traffic gets congested. When ISPs refuse to use the caching services offered by the likes of Google and Netflix, video has to travel farther across the Internet to get to its final destination—your living room.
Ars Technica also points out several recent examples. One involves Time Warner rejecting an offer by Netflix for a free caching system which would have improved performance for Netflix/Time Warner subscribers. Elsewhere, Comcast "demanded" better pay from Level 3, a core transit provider, after the latter made a deal with the 'flix. Business ambiguity abounds in many such cases, wherein there aren't necessarily any clear 'bad guys.'
What Netflix does in the name of pro-consumer policy, others call coercive take-it-or-leave-it business dealing. What I read from Ars Technica's coverage of deals like these is that they're impenetrable to a point almost comparable to, well, politics, and further compounded by being rather rarely publicized.
This makes them difficult to follow, much less understand, let alone make sweeping statements about. (Basically, it's a mess, and it sucks for everybody).
One thing, however, is not all that obscure, and that's the quality of user experience.
Degraded connections disproportionately affect the quality of streaming video because video requires far more bits than most other types of traffic. Netflix and YouTube alone account for nearly half of all Internet traffic to homes in North America during peak hours, according to research by SandVine. And customers are far more likely to be annoyed by a video that stutters and stops than by a webpage taking a few extra seconds to load.
When simplified, one thing is totally straightforward -- viewers want their video. Video services want to give them their video. The only potential hiccup along the way for this mutually beneficial relationship is the ISPs.
Furthermore, web video isn't going away. It will continue to become more and more important, and even more ubiquitous than YouTube and Netflix already are. Users and viewers can only hope the businesses quietly(ish) at work providing content -- and the infrastructure for its cross-platform access -- can come to some kind of agreement.
Unfortunate as it may be, even if you drop your premium cable package, you still need to pay somebody to access TV on the internet.
In the meantime, for optimum streaming performance, you may have to treat peak hours like rush hour commutes. If you want to go further faster you might just have to wait until everyone else is off the highway.