Netflix is making sure customers know whom to blame for slow, grainy video

Netflix, which accounts for more than a third of all traffic heading into American homes at peak hours, would like to put more of the onus on internet providers. (Reuters)
Netflix, which accounts for more than a third of all traffic heading into American homes at peak hours, would like to put more of the onus on internet providers. (Reuters)
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Netflix error message: "The Verizon network is crowded right now."

When online video stutters, buffers, or won’t play altogether, people get irritated—and Netflix has started encouraging its customers to blame their internet service providers for the substandard performance.

The screenshot above was captured by Yuri Victor, a designer at Vox Media, as he tried to watch Netflix video on an Apple computer. His internet provider is Verizon FiOS, a fiber-optic network that promises exceptionally high speeds. Others have recently seen a similar message while using AT&T’s network.

Responsibility for the quality of streaming video is at the crux of current debates over internet regulation. Netflix, which accounts for more than a third of all traffic heading into American homes at peak hours, would like to put more of the onus on internet providers. “The Verizon network is crowded right now” is a public relations campaign in the form of an error message.

Netflix download speeds in the US had deteriorated at the end of last year as its connections with some internet providers became clogged. The providers said that was Netflix’s fault for sending an ever-increasing amount of data across their networks. Netflix disagreed, but in February, it struck a deal to pay Comcast, the leading US internet provider, for a more direct line to customers. Speeds immediately improved, as HBO’s John Oliver noted in his recent viral rant over net neutrality. Netflix struck a similar deal with Verizon in April.

But Netflix and other streaming video services, like Google’s YouTube, say internet providers shouldn’t be able to cut those kinds of deals. US regulators are currently weighing the issue.

In addition to lobbying the government, internet video companies have made a point of publicizing how their services perform on various networks. Netflix publishes such data for internet providers in 20 countries. Google recently started doing the same in the US and Canada, labeling some internet providers as “YouTube HD Verified” and others, not-so-much. Netflix has vowed to “encourage our members to demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”

Americans generally dislike their internet providers and are more sympathetic to companies like Netflix. Still, when streaming video doesn’t work like it should, people may be equally frustrated at all parties involved. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (and former cable industry lobbyist), recently recalled watching Netflix in bed with his wife, when the feed began to buffer. “You’re chairman of the FCC,” she said to him. “Why is this happening?

Next time it happens, Netflix has an answer for her.

Update (2:40pm EDT): In a blog post, Verizon says Netflix’s accusatory error message “is not only inaccurate, it is deliberately misleading.” Verizon’s site isn’t currently working, though, so here’s the full text:

Reports from this morning have suggested that Netflix is engaging in a PR stunt in an attempt to shift blame to ISPs for the buffering that some of its customers may be experiencing. According to one journalist’s tweet from last night, Netflix is displaying a message on the screen for users who experience buffering which says: “The Verizon network is crowded right now.”

This claim is not only inaccurate, it is deliberately misleading.

The source of the problem is almost certainly NOT congestion in Verizon’s network. Instead, the problem is most likely congestion on the connection that Netflix has chosen to use to reach Verizon’s network. Of course, Netflix is solely responsible for choosing how their traffic is routed into any ISP’s network.

Some reporters seem to have bought into Netflix’s claims without question, and some have conflated this dispute with net neutrality.  For those looking for more careful analysis, however, there is plenty of good material out there by technical experts (such as industry analyst Dan Rayburn) that set the record straight. One of the best stories is an informative piece by Maggie Reardon on CNET, which explains what is really going on. (And of course, there is my own blog post from last summer when this story first started appearing.)

It is sad that Netflix is willing to deliberately mislead its customers so they can be used as pawns in business negotiations and regulatory proceedings.

It would be more accurate for Netflix’s message screen to say: “The path that we have chosen to reach Verizon’s network is crowded right now.”

However, that would highlight their responsibility for the problem.

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