Video services

What's a Little Throttling Between Friends?

I've been thinking about news that surfaced last week around Verizon throttling speeds for video content on its wireless network. Customers reported seeing their speeds capped at about 10 megabits per second for Netflix and YouTube streaming, and some suggested the caps were causing performance issues by degrading video quality.

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) responded to the charges by saying it was temporarily testing out new traffic management techniques, but the company also stated emphatically that the tests did not affect the user experience.

So what's the deal?

Well first, a cap of 10 Mbits/s shouldn't have caused performance problems given that a standard Netflix stream only needs throughput of 3 Mbits/s to 4 Mbits/s. That said, however, users who experienced the issues are still correlating the two factors. So whether there was an impact or not, Verizon has now created a perception that it was penalizing customers for using over-the-top video services.

Second, as far as we know, users only experienced streaming issues related to the use of Netflix and YouTube. That inevitably brings up the question of whether Verizon was treating individual applications in different ways, and whether there are net neutrality implications to the whole mess.

Indeed, by the middle of Friday afternoon, I'd already received a missive from Free Press , which pointed to the throttling incident as a reason to continue fighting for net neutrality and the rollback of the Open Internet Order. Free Press noted that Verizon says the network optimization tests were applied equally to all video apps, including the telco's own Go90 mobile video service. But the email went on to argue that, "If Verizon's supposedly first-rate mobile network can't handle the load, why is it picking on video streaming instead of imposing a speed limit that applies to any bandwidth-intensive apps?"

In other words, Free Press was suggesting that if Verizon needs to introduce caps to handle streaming video demand, then it should apply those caps to all applications equally.

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I have a pretty simple philosophy on the event last week. Namely, Verizon could have avoided a whole lot of trouble if it had only explained what it was doing at the outset rather than letting users discover and potentially magnify the issue. This sounds like less of a net neutrality concern to me (assuming Verizon did treat all video apps the same) than it does a communications one, and unfortunately, it's the same kind of mistake that service providers seem to want to make over and over again.

Telcos and cablecos don't want to tell the public anything that sounds like bad news or could even be construed as such. They don't want to tell you they're raising prices. They'd rather insert hidden fees. They don't want to tell you they're phasing out a service. They'd rather extend the timeline for updates and hope you leave on their own. (See In the TV Biz, AT&T Walks a Tricky Line.)

And they don't want to tell you when they're capping speeds. They'd rather just hope you don't notice.

There's a problem with this approach, however. It doesn't work well in an Internet age where customers share information about their experiences almost instantaneously, and where it takes very little effort to compare those experiences and identify patterns.

A big part of the reason many broadband and pay-TV providers are hated is because they have no interest in being transparent. They could maybe get away with that approach when users had no context for evaluating their behavior, but that's simply not the case anymore.

Customers have a lot of information at their fingertips, and service providers really need to start accounting for that reality.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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