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When you’re curled up on the couch, set to watch the second season of Orange is the New Black, and the video stream pixelates or just stops, it’s the modern-day equivalent of the “all circuits are busy now” message one can still hear on landline phones (or one could, if people were calling on them). And the issues behind both problems are similar — somewhere in the network there is too much demand and not enough capacity.
But unlike the days of landline phones, when one industry controlled the calling experience (telephone companies that were forced by FCC regulations to connect calls on their networks), our broadband networks and the internet itself is controlled by varied industries and there are no rules around interconnections. This is why we’re seeing Netflix and various ISPs battling it out in the press.
The internet is a wild west
For much of the internet’s life this wasn’t an issue, but in 2014 as video takes over more and more of network traffic (and cuts into the ISP’s triple play bundle) ISPs have been pushing back against the large content providers like Netflix, Google, Amazon and others. Where in many cases U.S. ISPs (and most participants on the internet) have signed interconnection agreements that link the two parties’ networks together without one party charging the other, this is now changing.
Seeking control over what traffic gets on their network and another source of revenue, several of the nation’s largest ISPs have been engaging in negotiations to charge Netflix, and transit providers that carry Netflix traffic for the ability to directly connect to the ISP networks. This has led to both Netflix and ISPs to engage in behavior that has hurt consumers. We’ve detailed the problem here and here, and also explained why this is an issue that the FCC should investigate.
While the FCC, the tech press and a few other entities are paying attention to peering, it’s a hard sell for consumers, since it’s happening out of sight in data centers and requires and understanding of how the internet works. Other than bad Netflix, consumers may never see the issue. And bad video streaming could be caused by any number of things — from bad Wi-Fi to a server problem at the content providers end.
Plus, it can be even harder to understand why Netflix shouldn’t pay and why that might be bad for consumers.
A tale of broadband frustration
But I have a perfect example of why this matters. It starts at my cable box. Since the beginning of the year, my husband and I have had trouble watching Amazon or Hulu during prime time over our Time Warner Cable connection. The video streams would fail and we’d get messages on our Blu-Ray player telling us our connection was too slow. Yet, a check on speedtest.net would reveal we were getting at least 30 Mbps not the anemic 1.2 Mbps or .3 Mbps our player would show.
TWC offered a software upgrade to our modem and was actually quite helpful with regard to sending someone out to fix the problem. While I’m well aware that any cable modem is a shared service, it’s ridiculous to think that someone paying for 50 Mbps would be content to get 1 Mbps. Time Warner agreed.
Unfortunately, the problems remained and then my modem would just drop offline for 15 minutes to as much as 2 hours. This was untenable and the cable guys came back out to eventually replace the coaxial cable on my entire street. While the problem with both intermittent service and the prime time video playback are still occurring, they have lessened. But my husband and I decided to seek an alternative to Time Warner Cable.
Show me the options
We live in Austin, which is often held up as an oasis of broadband competition with an existing gigabit network provided by Grande Communications, a soon-to-be-gigabit network from AT&T and another planned gigabit network from Google. But none of those are available in my Austin neighborhood. So our choice was TWC or AT&T’s U-verse with 24 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
AT&T was cheaper, but it also is having an interconnection fight with Netflix at the moment — leading Netflix to say that AT&T’s Uverse speeds are slower than DSL. Since we watch a lot of Netflix and other internet video services (we don’t usually have cable in our house because we don’t watch much TV), AT&T would only fix one of our problems.
And what if Netflix hadn’t signed a peering agreement with AT&T, but Amazon had? What if TWC had a deal with Netflix but not Hulu? Then, here I am: a consumer who pays for the fastest broadband speeds available getting high quality access to only some of the internet. That’s not a choice consumers should make. When it comes to both peering and the network neutrality rules that the FCC is considering, ISPs are seeking to use their access to my home to charge everyone, at every point in the network, to deliver content.
This will make them the gatekeepers to content and force consumers into lose-lose situations with regard to picking a broadband provider. The internet isn’t like cable TV. We shouldn’t have to pick from two or perhaps three service providers who have the deals in place to deliver the content we want. Especially if the other alternative is to go with a provider whose service doesn’t even work all the time.
As we’ve said before, the only broadband that matters is the broadband you have access to at your home. In most places, that’s not a competitive market. And with fights over interconnection agreements and the possibility that network neutrality transforms into paying for priority access, consumers get screwed again. Take it from me. Having a bunch of bad choices is like having no choice at all.