Who's Really to Blame When Netflix Slows Down?

If you're a Netflix customer on Verizon, there's a good chance you've spending a lot more time with that bright red buffering screen than you'd like. That's why, over the past few weeks, Netflix and Verizon have been displacing blame by taking pot shots at each other. But while they're busy bickering, we're the ones suffering. What the hell is really going on?

If this war of words has accomplished anything, it's muddling the facts beyond recognition. Just last week, after being called out by Netflix for slow speeds, Verizon issued a sassy blog post counterattack. And while the initial Netflix jab was glib, all Verizon's response really accomplished was to distract from the real problem at hand. Which, funnily enough, has a lot do with Verizon itself.

Here's the truth: Netflix and Verizon are both in full agreement about why your Netflix speeds are stuck at such an infuriating crawl. The issue isn't about what's causing it. It's about who's picking up the bill.

Why We Buffer

In Verizon's retort, Vice President of Public Policy David Young makes a show of explaining that Netflix lied about a crowded Verizon network, and that it's actually Netflix's own choices that led to the buffering mess. Verizon even provided this not entirely readable chart to drive the point home:

Who's Really to Blame When Netflix Slows Down?

Indeed, it's clear that Verizon's own infrastructure isn't overcrowded. As those happy green arrows show, there's hardly any congestion there at all—because no one can get into its network in the first place.

That red arrow may imply that Netflix dumps a massive clog into Verizon's tiny drain, but it's actually a mutually shared interconnection point. It's this gateway where the two companies trade traffic in an agreement referred to as peering, something Verizon and Netflix agreed to back in May, and that Comcast and Netflix agreed to back in February.

The whole reason these deals had to be reached in the first place is, admittedly, because Netflix is so impossibly huge; roughly 30 percent of all internet traffic. So it's easy to see how our hundreds of thousands of binge-watch sessions could cripple Verizon's pipes. The solution? Make long-overdue upgrades and additions to Verizon's various peering ports, ensuring a bigger, better Verizon infrastructure in the long run and actually giving customers what they're paying for in the immediate. But as David Young's post makes clear, Verizon has decided that this is Netflix's problem.

The catch, though, is that Netflix has offered Verizon a reasonable set of options for reducing the strain of its massive captive audience. Specifically, Netflix offers what they call "a caching appliance" as part of its Open Connect program, which is essentially an entire Netflix in a box that ensures Netflix data has less distance to travel, meaning it clogs less junctions. And if you refuse one of those 100 TB bad boys, Netflix is also happy to peer at a common Internet exchange.

But because Verizon won't agree to those terms, customer experience lags. Netflix gets paid whether data makes it to customers or not. Verizon gets paid whether it gives its customers what they want or not. And as those customers are busy paying Netflix for the data and Verizon to deliver that data, neither deal is being fulfilled.

Why We'll Continue to Buffer

Verizon actually makes two different arguments for why the Netflix capacity problem isn't its fault. The first is that Netflix, a disproportionately large source of traffic, tried to stuff a whole mess of data in a channel that wasn't equipped to handle it. Which, hey, sure, that's not an unreasonable discussion to have. Except the volume of traffic isn't unexpected as Verizon makes it seem, and Netflix has taken steps to remedy the problem. Verizon's just not ready to play ball.

But that brings us to the ISP's next argument: Why have Netflix as a peer when you can have them as a paying customer? Verizon argues that because Netflix is sending such a greater traffic flow into Verizon's pipes than Netflix gets back, a peering partnership would be unfair. (Of course, that "unfairness" is why Netflix offers the cache appliances in the first place—to unload strain from the ISP's network.) Instead, Verizon is choosing to charge twice for the same service. Its customers have already paid for Verizon to bring them the data they request, and now Verizon wants to go ahead and charge the people (in this case, Netflix) answering those requests, too.

As Derek Turner, Research Director for the Free Press, explained in an email to Gizmodo:

It is Verizon's customers who are requesting this data. Carriers like Cogent and Level 3 are bringing the requested traffic to Verizon's front door, but Verizon isn't opening the door wide enough to let them in.

It'd be as if your apartment building management company tried to charge UPS or FedEx a fee for the privilege of being allowed to enter the front door to the complex in order to deliver the package you paid for, into the building that you pay rent for.

But since Netflix ultimately gave in to Verizon's (some might say unfair) terms, shouldn't streaming speeds have picked up by now? Why yes, yes they should have. For whatever reason, though, those additional connections Verizon is being paid two times over to build aren't ready yet—and it shows. Just this past Monday, Netflix released its latest batch of ISP speed rankings, and Verizon FiOS speeds actually dropped by nearly 20 percent in June and Verizon DSL dropped a cool 13 percent. Because Netflix has already paid up (regardless of whether you believe they should have), this is on Verizon's shoulders.

So Verizon is essentially blaming Netflix for being forced to use Verizon's own inferior infrastructure. In other words, it's the most technologically complex "stop hitting yourself" defense you ever did hear. (Verizon has not responded to a request for comment on the status of the connections.)

And How We Can Make It Stop

Even though Netflix has given in (this time), and even if Verizon decides to start giving its customers what they paid for, these are really just temporary solutions. Verizon is always going to want to charge twice for the same service because they can, meaning our prices go up and the end product stays mediocre at best. And these are the problems the FCC is explicitly in place to prevent.

But as we've mentioned before, the FCC can't really do much of anything until it reclassifies broadband providers as common carriers (or services that are legally required to cater equally to all). This simple matter of semantics would allow the FCC to force Verizon to reasonably interconnect (read: no money need change hands) with content providers like Netflix.

Because as it stands now, regardless of whose side you're on, the problems boil down to a total lack of established rules for peering, traffic exchange, or settlements regarding either. That's why Verizon can make these demands in the first place. After all, who's going to stop them? Sure, the FCC sent ISPs and content companies letters asking for them to come to an interconnection agreement, but that's a half-hearted—not to mention un-enforceable—gesture at best. Until the laws change, ISPs will be free to run rampant. Because with little to no competition in whats quickly becoming a cable duopoly, Verizon and Comcast are free to treat their customers however they'd like. You don't have a choice.

As for this current Netflix/Verizon squabble, one of these companies is demanding a second payment for a service it's already been paid for. The other is not. And if the one charging double can maybe convince you it's not doing anything wrong with a bit of convoluted language, hell, why not. They've got nothing to lose. Because until the laws change—and no matter how many times you restart your router—that buffering screen is here to stay.