Buffering Bummer: Are Bitter Broadband Providers Handicapping Netflix & YouTube?

Video thumbnail for youtube video Buffering Bummer: Are Bitter Broadband Providers Handicapping Netflix & YouTube? - No Film SchoolIt'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.

Link: Why YouTube buffers: The secret deals that make — and break — online video -- Ars Technica

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Yep. Comcast, almost the day after it was allowed to buy NBC/Universal, said they would throttle back the bandwidth on users that were attempting to stream Netflix movies while on Comcast high speed internet. It appears that Comcast, after a sordid history of illegally putting bandwidth caps on services where no bandwidth caps existed on unlimited internet contracts, and illegally shutting off the internet of users who were legally sharing files across their broadband internet connection (but still was allowed by the FCC to buy NBCU), wants every one of their users to use Comcast's video platform.

August 3, 2013 at 9:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


One thing I've found to be of slight benefit is to use an alternate DNS server. Google provides public DNS for all. I have definitely seen an increase in loading times. Not sure how or why TW is throttling with DNS but it seemed to work. Ymmv.

August 3, 2013 at 10:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The reason these pipe owners can act so belligerently is because they are protected by the government. If Comcast caps your bandwidth, thereby breaking a previously existing agreement, it does so because Comcast has protection from its political connections. Some DC shills like John McCain are making a mockery out of the debate, as the core of the issue isn't the "a la carte programming" but the monopolistic price controls imposed by the government at the behest of these cable companies.
The second part of the equation is that the tech companies (Intel, Google. M-soft, Apple) have their own Luca Brasi types but, so far, the inertia has been with the entrenched conglomerates, pro cable/entertainment companies and somewhat anti-tech.
And, now that we have the thesis and the antithesis, we add the synthesis - a lot of these companies are cross owned, so in many respects, they are fighting among themselves. The possible and likely technical solution that is within grasp is the improved cable speeds (DOCSIS 3.1, capable of 10 Gb/s), fiber and WiFi/WiMax connections. The political solutions depend on politicians and those depend on donations by their major contributors and that's a bit of the status quo at the moment.
PS. For 4K streaming on H.265/HEVC, one needs about 20 Mb/s download capability. The average in the US right now is about 8Mb/s, enough for 1080p.

August 3, 2013 at 11:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


See, this is why we still torrent. I am, and have always been willing to pay my share. But as long as I get a shoddy service that is only half working rather than a premium service, I am not going to bloody pay for that subpar experience, Then I will rather stick to the BEST experience, which also happens to be the free one, which is torrented media. The industry is sabotaging the netflixes of the world, the legitimate services, and other actors too, like the ones mentioned in this article.And then everyone whine about torrenting. Well duh, you brought it about.

August 5, 2013 at 1:10AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Well, once upon a time ago there was something called the Public Service Commission which was a local regulatory agency with the power to curb providers' attempts at rate increases. They scheduled public hearings in which consumers could voice their objections. Now, that agency has been reconfigured as the Public Utilities Commission. It is largely a dog and pony show and such requests for increases are regularly rubber-stamped. My point is that until consumers have some kind of means of intervention, I'm afraid we're stuck paying for a bunch of junk TV we don't want and paying ridiculous prices for it because the "bundles" are so confusing and there's no one to restrict any of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

As much as I like Netflix, and as much as I despise all the bogus cable/satellite fees (like paying a lease fee for a receiver I can never own in addition to an up-front charge per unit or an HD fee when everything should be broadcast in HD by now anyway), it seems like this is just another case of too many fingers in the pie creating expense and/or inconvenience for the consumer. IF my satellite provider would actually broadcast worthwhile content continually instead of infomercials or IF they would offer a competitive streaming function that rivaled Netflix, hulu, et al., I wouldn't even NEED Netflix. As it stands, though, the cable and satellite companies also charge ridiculous fees to even download a 1-day movie rental... so I won't hold my breath.

August 5, 2013 at 1:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


...but, to play devil's advocate somewhat, I suppose no one should be surprised by the inherent conflicts between service providers like TiVo and Netflix and the actual carriers (Cox, Comcast, Direct, etc.). Both of those services have/had tremendous potential and fantastic user loyalty. But that's almost meaningless when they have little to no control over actual content. In retrospect, maybe a $9 monthly fee for unlimited streamed content from Netflix is ridiculously INexpensive considering the symbiotic relationship they have with content providers - both actual content and the delivery system.

August 5, 2013 at 3:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


German Telekom is definitely limitinng youtube access (or at least deliberately not fixing problems).

They have some brawl with youtube over certain backbones or whatever, so the speeds on youtube are sometimes that bad that you just cannot watch a 1080 Video with an otherwise perfectly fine 50Mbit/s VDSL line.

They always say it's not like that, but nobody believes them.

August 8, 2013 at 2:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


...oh and German Telekom also started throtteling DSL speeds down to a crawl (like 2 mbit) in their new contracts when people exceed a certain limit (which is only 75GB a month for the smaller DSL contracts, which is a joke, because they still call it a "flat rate")

Of course they do not throttle their own entertainment package T-Entertain...

August 8, 2013 at 2:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


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June 20, 2014 at 11:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


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July 9, 2014 at 2:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM