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Bingeing on House of Cards? Real politics may be slowing down your Netflix stream

By George Chidi
Saturday, February 22, 2014 21:38 EDT
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Actor Kevin Spacey attends the Netflix's House Of Cards New York Premiere on January 30, 2013. (AFP)
 
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Last weekend, Netflix released the second season of the acclaimed political drama “House of Cards.

The streaming video service has about 34 million subscribers. And about two percent of them — or about 668,000 subscribers — watched the whole season in one go, all 11 hours in under three days. At least three million American subscribers watched at least one episode.

If the service streamed 20 million hours of Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian sneer last weekend, that’s 50 billion gigabytes of data downloaded. But that House of Cards binge actually represents a typical day for Netflix, according to network monitoring firm Procera.

But if you happened to notice that your streaming download seemed a bit choppy, it’s not so much a Netflix binge as our overall online video dietary habits, combined with a recent federal court ruling that lets your Internet service provider play politics with your feed.

Last month, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit struck down long-standing FCC rules preventing ISPs from charging special rates for competing content providers to access their pipes. These network neutrality rules are central to the efficient operation of the Internet, and keep companies like Comcast or AT&T from favoring their own content over competitors … like Netflix.

Netflix has been a source of bandwidth havoc for years, and alone represents more than a third of all Internet traffic today. It also produces content like House of Cards and Arrested Development, which competes with the offerings of cable channels.

Now, the relationships between the firms that pipe Netflix’ content into the Internet and the ISPs serving Netflix customers have started to break down. A report Friday from tech news site Ars Technica describes the hard negotiating position taken by Verizon in a dispute with one of Netflix’ Internet providers, Cogent, over peering — the process of trading Internet traffic. Most of the time, no money is exchanged in these relationships, but Verizon has demanded rates that would likely force Netflix to pass on the additional cost as a price hike.

Netflix and Comcast may have reached an agreement earlier this week, according to Ars Technica and other reports.

However, the equipment connecting Cogent and Verizon has been allowed to grow obsolete, saturating the connection points with more data than they’re designed to handle. The result is lost data packets, which slows down Netflix streams. The choke point isn’t in a home subscriber’s own connection to the Internet. It’s farther upstream, where Netflix’ pipes dump out into Verizon’s and Comcast’s and Charter’s.

 
 
 
 
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