11 Comments

Summary:

As TV viewing has gone online, the delivery of content has become fractured. With more players, there are more things to break, and it’s often the consumer that gets stuck in the middle when ISPs and the content giants like Netflix and amazon fight.

On Friday night I rented Pitch Perfect on Amazon’s Instant Video service and settled in for a chill evening of popcorn and cheesy singing. But the experience was less than perfect. The movie stopped roughly 15 minutes in, and once it restarted after a brief moment to load, it proceeded to stop several more times.

I called Amazon(samzn), which said it was having server issues that was causing problems for those streaming through a Roku box (I was), and got a refund for the movie. But the customer service rep said that based on my stream the Roku server issues weren’t the likely problem; my internet connection was. He said my internet service kept dropping the connection. I asked for a copy of the stream results he was looking at so I could call my ISP and find out what was going on, but that wasn’t possible. The customer service rep ended up offering to be on the phone with me while I called my ISP, something I haven’t done yet because he didn’t offer me a way to contact him other than email.

As I was on the phone with Amazon, I knew this might make a good story, so I took notes. But honestly, I didn’t want to spend Friday night troubleshooting my 30 Mbps cable broadband connection, my Roku box, my home Wi-Fi network or my inability to stream a rental via Amazon. I wanted to watch a $4 movie and relax. The trouble is that technology has enabled us to break up the process of getting a movie or TV show into many different pieces controlled by different service providers. But as we do this, we’ve have also taken out any accountability, which puts the consumer in the middle of any disputes over service quality.

Stuck in the middle with you

netflicopenconnectMy experience on Friday is just one example — other content companies are eliciting help from consumers in the quest for better quality video streams. This week Netflix said it will offer 3D movies and a higher quality stream to customers whose ISPs put a Netflix Open Connect box on their network. The Open Connect program is Netflix’s homegrown content delviery network that many ISPs in Europe are using as well as a few in the U.S. But Comcast, Time Warner Cable (stwc), Verizon, AT&T and CenturyLink — which together comprise about 61.3 million broadband customers — aren’t using the service.

Netflix has offered up a handy web site so customers can see if they can get the higher quality streams, and suggests that if they can’t, those consumers should call their ISP. So now, I’m supposed to call Time Warner Cable and ask it to make the business decision to add Netflix Connect as well as try to get tech help on my Amazon issue; possibly by asking the technician to hold and wait for me to dial back in to Amazon’s help line to find the guy who helped me on Friday. I am not excited.

So many points of failure

This box is yet another possible point of failure.

This box is yet another possible point of failure.

Other than making me get in the middle of a fight between two corporate behemoths, there are some other issues caused by the disaggregation of TV that are worth exploring. My Amazon movie, for example, was streamed from Amazon’s servers possibly to Roku’s servers before heading over the network to my house. Depending on how much Amazon and/or Roku traffic was coming into Time Warner’s network in Central Texas at that time, the packets may have been stymied there before ever reaching that last mile to my home.

It’s a well-known secret in the peering world that ISPs sometimes choke the traffic coming in from large content companies as a reason to charge them more money for the privilege of interconnecting to them. That’s suspected of happening with Free in France, and has triggered an investigation by the French telecoms authority. It’s also happened in the U.S., although most of the arguments on the issue are solved by negotiation rather than a government probe.

Should my Pitch Perfect packets hit the last mile network, they still have to run the gauntlet of all of my neighbors’ traffic (cable networks are shared, and Friday night is a great time for others to stream their own movies). Once inside my home it has to traverse my Wi-Fi network and travel through my Roku box to the TV. A congested Wi-Fi network or even glitches on my Roku may also affect the quality of my service.

Pay TV might be the option, if…

Comcast's Xfinity app

Comcast’s Xfinity app

So as you can see, there are several places where my stream can get caught up and turn my Friday night rental to a pixelated or buffering mess, even if Amazon and my cable company were on speaking terms. My ISP would argue that the solution here is that I get my videos through it via on-demand rentals. And it is right. That may become the real value that pay TV services can provide. They control the packet from its origination all the way to the home (or set-top-box in some cases) and can deliver a quality experience.

But right now, they don’t provide enough value in terms of quality of service for me to spend $100 a month. As someone who rents maybe two or three movies a month and watches one or two shows on TV, it’s not worth it. It’s like buying a Maserati when a minivan or maybe even a moped would do.

Right now the cable companies and some telcos are pushing on-demand content to more devices (YAY!) through services like Comcast’s Xfinity, which is a concession to how customers want to watch more content on their time at on the device of their choosing. However, for the most part, they are ignoring that some people don’t want everything.

The pay TV industry has fought a la carte programming for years, and may not give in now. Without a lot of competition it’s tough to see that dynamic changing — and in some cases it would upend the pay TV business model. Pay TV companies generally sign long-term contracts to channels paying them a set fee for each subscriber. Even as subscribers fall, cable companies are still paying those fees. As television makes the transition to broadband, consumers, pay TV companies and the content companies are all making sacrifices, but asking customers to mediate disputes between Amazon and an ISP shouldn’t be one of them.

  1. I use Amazon Instant Video a lot and I always experience sudden reductions in bitrate (even though I always pay for HD) and occasionally the program will freeze. Both of those problems can be corrected by refreshing the cache on my computer. I’ve complained to Amazon several times but they’ve never accepted responsibility for any of it; in every case they blamed someone else. Amazon used to have great customer service, but now? Not so much.

    Share
  2. Martin Bergstrom Thursday, January 10, 2013

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit as I recently did a project on Netflix Instant Streaming and it’s hard to see an easy solution. I think you can take heart in a couple things though: First, the a la carte fight is one they may lose sooner rather than later and I’ve heard some rumblings that Pay TV packages may begin allowing customers more personalized choices in bundles. We’re on the the edge right now, but I think that the moment one company breaks ahead of the others in this, we’ll see a rapid flurry of changes.

    The second thing though is much more general and I wish I had some rumors to go on, but video streaming is still in its relative infancy. This means that there are going to be a lot of companies jockeying for top positions and things will be messy, but it will likely calm down in the rather near future. It may take a couple mergers or strategic partnerships, but the demand is there and since none of these companies benefit from illegal downloads (which users will turn to if the legal options are too arduous) I think that we will start to see some better cooperation and coordination soon. It may take them a while to figure out the optimal way to pursue this, but even some low revenues are better than sacrificing consumer demand to illegal markets.

    Share
  3. Martin Bergstrom Thursday, January 10, 2013

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit as I recently did a project on Netflix Instant Streaming and it’s hard to see an easy solution. I think you can take heart in a couple things though: First, the a la carte fight is one they may lose sooner rather than later and I’ve heard some rumblings that Pay TV packages may begin allowing customers more personalized choices in bundles. We’re on the the edge right now, but I think that the moment one company breaks ahead of the others in this, we’ll see a rapid flurry of changes.

    The second thing though is much more general and I wish I had some rumors to go on, but video streaming is still in its relative infancy. This means that there are going to be a lot of companies jockeying for top positions and things will be messy, but it will likely calm down in the rather near future. It may take a couple mergers or strategic partnerships, but the demand is there and since none of these companies benefit from illegal downloads (which users will turn to if the legal options are too arduous) I think that we will start to see some better cooperation and coordination soon. It may take them a while to figure out the optimal way to pursue this, but even some low revenues are better than sacrificing consumer demand to illegal markets.

    Share
  4. As usual, Stacey — essentially a lobbyist for GigaOm advertiser Google — brands ISPs as evildoers for expecting to be paid for what they do.

    Share
    1. You’re a lobbyist for Google. Why else would you keep mentioning their name?

      Share
  5. As a recent cable cord cutter, I can relate to much of this. You have to want to do it, you must actively participate, and no matter what, you will have “issues”. The cable solution lost me when commercials were extended to 3-minute blocks, and content choice was reduced to hundreds of informercials.

    I have no problem actively seeking out my entertainment. I do have a problem with problem resolution. There are too many points of failure. Is it the content provider? Is it my ISP? Is it my equipment? Nobody is willing to accept responsibility. And you know who receives the most blame. Me.

    A la carte choice would kill 90% of what is on cable. Most channels can’t stand on their own merits. Most channels are owned by the cable providers. A la carte programming ain’t going to happen.

    A point not discussed here is the exclusivity of sports. Sports entertainment is un-american, controlled by a virtual monopoly; ESPN and regional Fox Sports. Sports are vacating the broadcast channels and are becoming exclusive property of cable. MLB.com will sell me access to every team, except the team I want to watch. I can’t even listen to a radio stream of my NFL team. That content is blocked. Not the radio station, just the football games.

    Share
  6. Most ‘stuttering’ of video is NOT the suppliers fault. It is the ISP’s. I havent buffered for a number of years but my ISP delivers its signal over a Fiber to the Home connection. Its lighting fast (ALL THE TIME NOT JUST NON-PEAK HOURS) and always on. Any of my family/friends who have a Utopia fiber connection (delivered via several different ISP’s) claim the same.

    I hear all the time about how bad NetFlix was such and such night, or how one could barely play a YouTube and think its the providers issue. This is the only spot I feel for NetFlix. As one with an ACTUAL internet connection, that isnt based on the theory of ‘Turbo/Power Boost’ signal transmission, I can say the stuttering has NOTHING to do with NetFlix.

    We are all starting to understand, via the free market delivering goods/services on the internet, that most current methods ISP’s utilise are so far behind what one ACTUALLY needs to view video trouble free. Start calling your ISP and demanding they deliver a signal that is big enough (and constant enough) for you to use the various things out there, properly and without headache.

    Share
  7. This article is a reminder of how simple life was before video streaming. I remember when we either went to a theater or watched a movie on TV a few months after its theatrical release. Oh. Wait a minute. We still have that option …

    Share
  8. The real question is why they are streaming the file instead of downloading and caching it locally.

    Share
    1. The simple answer to this is: because the customer doesn’t want to wait start watching the movie.

      Share
  9. I wrote about the multiple-points-of-failure in my master’s thesis a couple of years ago, which is now available in this blog

    http://razoredmedia.blogspot.com/2012/02/factors-which-challenge-emergence-of.html

    where I saw customer support issues and the resultant consumer confidence as a major issue. Writing from the UK I think things have improved since then, but I think businesses are still up against it when trying to convince users to start making regular one-off purchases for streaming content. I recently used a streaming service on a Roku-like box and the film would not restart correctly after pausing – a disastrous situation.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post