How the ISP duopoly is nailing Netflix -- and you

Netflix streaming video is a prime example of disruptive technology. To quash it, the big ISPs don't need to lift a finger

If you didn't already have a Netflix streaming subscription, I'm pretty sure you got one for Christmas this year. Since Christmas day, Netflix streaming has been quite problematic in these parts, with audio dropouts, stuttering video, rebuffering, and other problems. Prior to Dec. 25, that was a very rare occurrence.

The cynical conspiracy theorist in me suspects that my ISP/cable company may be interfering with the packets going to and from Netflix in order to make me point fingers at Netflix's service. After all, no regulations prevent it from doing this.

[ Read Paul Venezia's full commentary on Comcast bullying Netflix. | Paul's geek credentials are on full display in InfoWorld's Networking Deep Dive. ]

Actually, I think it's a capacity problem. I've noticed that these problems seem to crop up more during prime TV-watching times -- say, 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. It results in an odd mixture of extremely modern, high-quality video and the clunkiness of a VCR. You simply don't expect it from a local cable on-demand service or a rented DVD, and it needs to be fixed if a service like Netflix streaming is to find success.

There are numerous ways to address this issue from a technical standpoint: QoS in home firewalls, ISPs caching content locally for distribution to customers, even multicasting. The first option may actually come to pass. It wouldn't surprise me to see consumer-grade firewalls with Netflix badges on them at some point in the future. They'd offer the ability to automatically prioritize Netflix traffic over everything else in order to reduce the problems caused by teenagers who are downloading tons of stuff while Mom and Dad are trying to watch the second season of "Lie to Me."

But the other fixes would require not just the acceptance, but the active participation of the ISPs in order to do any good. There may be incentive for the ISPs in terms of bandwidth savings, but I can't really see service providers -- which have their own competing streams -- going out of their way to smooth the roads for Netflix and other independent streaming services. It ain't gonna happen. I can see them stepping on competing service's packets while whistling and looking in the other direction, however.

That scenario may in fact be the arrow that slays independent streaming services -- not necessarily the active involvement of the ISPs, but their carefully orchestrated apathy. If they play their cards right and do nothing to deal with the problem, they may find that it resolves itself. Of course, this comes at the expense of their customers, but that concern has seldom been a major factor in past decisions by the big ISPs.

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