Netflix spars with Tier 1 ISPs over fast lanes: Year in Review 2014


The news: Netflix squared off against Comcast and Verizon, accusing them of deliberately slowing its streaming traffic, and leveraged that into the bigger net neutrality issue.

Early this year, Netflix and Comcast revealed that a years-long impasse had been resolved between the two of them regarding the amount of bandwidth Netflix video streams were taking up on Comcast's network. In short: Netflix paid Comcast a fee, and Comcast enabled faster access to its last-mile network. Buffering experiences decreased, customers were happy, and peace ruled the land.

Not so fast. Because then Netflix said that it had been forced into paying the fee to ensure its subscribers got a quality experience. And that was wrong, Netflix argued, because giving preferred access to a network for extra dollars went against the principle of net neutrality.

Netflix then announced it had also signed a similar deal with Verizon. But Verizon, it implied, wasn't honoring the deal, because streaming speeds for Netflix subscribers on Verizon's network didn't get better. In fact, they got slightly worse.

A furious war of words ensued between Verizon, Comcast and Netflix, with AT&T weighing in. Almost daily, corporate blog posts were exchanged like cannon shots. Middle-mile transport providers Cogent Communications and Level 3 Communications were drawn into the spat, since Netflix's data travels over their networks to get to the major ISPs' interconnect points.

It all landed in the lap of the FCC, in the form of furious statements around what many deemed "fast lanes" and "pay to play" preferences that allow Netflix to get better streaming speeds but subvert net neutrality.

Why was it significant? Net neutrality is already a thorny and confusing issue. Newbies to the argument find their attention being whipped around to terms like "Title II" and "Section 706." Last Week Tonight's John Oliver took a stab at explaining it a few months ago, in a 13-minute segment in which he pointed out that listening to regulatory hearings on the matter is, well, a bit boring. "I would rather listen to a pair of Dockers tell me about the weird dream it had," he quipped.

But net neutrality proponents argue the net neutrality debate could ultimately affect the long-term development of the Internet. And if the FCC stumbles in its attempts to update its net neutrality guidelines, the issue may be decided by a decidedly technology-illiterate Congress (some lawmakers reportedly still print out their emails).

Netflix's battle with Verizon and Comcast finally gave net neutrality players and the public something meaty to chew on, a solid example of a plucky startup (Netflix) getting Kept Down By The Man (large ISPs like Verizon)--at least in some folks' version of events. Others see it as the price of doing business. Either way, it became a rallying point for advocates of net neutrality regulation who want to see Internet data continue to be treated equally. Conversely, it's a talking point for ISPs that bear the direct cost of building faster networks to carry the data their customers demand.

Netflix spars with Tier 1 ISPs over fast lanes: Year in Review 2014

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