Why Carriers Won't Win War On Netflix

Simmer down, Net neutrality doomsayers. We can expect carriers to experiment with traffic impairment, but we can also expect them to fail.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

February 6, 2014

4 Min Read

It was only a matter of time. The simmer surrounding the hyped "death of Net neutrality" escalated to a boil Wednesday when a blogger who works for a cloud startup claimed that Verizon is now using the opportunity to "wage war against Netflix" and other content providers.

The blog writer, David Raphael, claimed that traffic to and from his Amazon Web Services infrastructure was much slower on his Verizon connection than it was on another carrier's connection. Raphael said he measured performance in a number of different ways, and that by using the time honored rule-in/rule-out methodology, established that Verizon was the problem. Raphael said he had a conversation with a Verizon customer service rep (he posted a screenshot of that chat on his blog) in which he asked point blank: "Is Verizon now limiting bandwidth to cloud providers like AWS?" To which the Verizon rep allegedly replied: "Yes, it is limiting bandwidth to cloud providers." Raphael said he went a step further, asking the rep: "This is why my Netflix is bad now?" To which the rep allegedly replied: "Yes."

Verizon denied the claim -- particularly that a Verizon rep admitted to the blogger that the carrier slows down AWS and other cloud services -- using standard corporate double-talk. In a statement reported by The Washington Post, Verizon said:

We treat all traffic equally, and that has not changed. Many factors can affect the speed of a customer's experiences for a specific site, including that site's servers, the way the traffic is routed over the Internet, and other considerations. We are looking into this specific matter, but the company representative was mistaken. We're going to redouble our representative education efforts on this topic.

Yes, in the future we will tell our customer reps not to rat us out, and craft specific punishments for doing so.

To be fair, it's not entirely clear whether the blogger was experiencing peering congestion or true rate limiting. You can't tell without more rigorous testing than the blogger was able to do. But under-the-covers traffic management is a common practice of any network operator.

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Whether or not the blogger or Verizon is telling the truth, there's still no reason to believe that the Internet as we know it is about to melt down because of the end of Net neutrality rules, which had forbidden carriers from giving certain kinds of content preferential treatment over other kinds until a court overturned those rules last month. Moreover, enacting stifling new regulations won't help and may harm carrier competition.

As our friends in the application performance management world have taught us, we live in a highly testable and transparent Internet world, and unless there's massive collusion among backbone providers, it's going to be pretty darned obvious when someone is intentionally slowing down traffic from specific content providers.

It's all "comparative anatomy." That is, if you simulate traffic from Netflix (or any other provider of Big Content) coming from one endpoint, and simulate "carrier traffic" from another, and "carrier traffic" is doing fine but Netflix isn't, you have an impairment. (In practice, the test would be a bit more complicated, but that's the general idea.)

As soon as I read Raphael's blog post, I predicted we'll see a new service serving the content industry: performance monitoring of carriers. Just you watch. There's already a project that uses consumer endpoints to monitor bandwidth for the FCC, among other agencies. It's just a question of whether existing APM service vendors such as Keynote and Gomez will tweak their software for this specific use, whether a startup will jump on it, or whether content juggernauts such as Netflix, Apple, and Google will roll their own performance monitoring into various datacenters and millions of viewing endpoints nationwide. (Interestingly, since I first read the blog post, Raphael's company has come up with a Net neutrality testing tool.

The bottom line is this: Even if Verizon or any other carrier hasn't tried to impede bandwidth-hogging traffic in this post-Net-neutrality world, the carriers will likely experiment with it. Would they be wolves if they left lambs alone? But they're not going to be able to get away with it because testing is relatively easy, content providers have deep pockets, and we have antitrust laws that address anticompetitive behavior.

And so begins another arms race. Settle down for amusing and interesting times. Just know that the Internet ain't melting down anytime soon.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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