The Real Reason Why Your Online Video Quality Stinks
If you've noticed that YouTube and Netflix stream slowly during peak hours, you might chalk it up to a congested network. This may be correct, but there might be a more complex issue just under the surface: a complex power play between your Internet service provider (ISP) and the companies that provide streaming video.
At the root of the problem are organizations called "data centers," reports tech site Ars Technica. Let's say you pay for Verizon FiOS and Netflix, and decide to stream a movie to your TV. Although Netflix provides the content and FiOS manages the cables, powerful Tier 1 data centers actually move much of the data from one place to another.
The issue of who pays whom can get exceedingly complicated. Services like Netflix need to pay data centers to carry their content. Data centers and ISPs work together — ISPs provide the framework for broadband (cables, Internet access), while data centers help data get from the content provider to the ISP to the customer.
Data centers and ISPs cooperate freely since they get equal benefit. However, this also can lead to problems: Both parties need data ports (essentially high-tech Ethernet ports to move data between locations), and when they need more, each party must shoulder part of the cost. This can lead to disputes over how much each company must dish out.
In 2010, for example, ISP Comcast believed that data-center Level 3 should pay it for ferrying Netflix traffic, considering that Netflix was responsible for such a large share of Level 3's business. These negotiations are often more about power struggles than real monetary value — adding ports, for example, may cost only $10,000.
These problems may seem arcane to the average user, but trouble will eventually filter down. ISPs frequently get into disputes with both streaming services and data centers over payment issues, which means that they can — and occasionally will — take punitive measures against streaming services.
This behavior might seem counterintuitive at first, since a customer is likely to blame, say, Verizon for a connection issue rather than Netflix. However, most major broadband companies offer streaming video services of their own.
If a Verizon user finds Netflix inhospitable, he or she may opt to use Redbox, which is working flawlessly, instead. Redbox, of course, is Verizon's own streaming video service. If Verizon can't extract sufficient funds from Netflix, it will go directly for the consumer's wallet instead. [See also: 10 Worst Internet Laws In the World]
These backroom dealings also help explain why service on YouTube or Netflix may be sluggish one evening, but stellar the next. As the power dynamics among data centers, ISPs and content providers vary, so too does the end-user experience.
Knowing that your data has to route through three companies that often argue with one another may be troubling, but there isn't much you can do about it. If Netflix and YouTube don't cooperate during peak hours, try getting your video content early in the morning or late at night rather than during the afternoon or evening.
Need other ways to relax after work or school? There are always books, DVDs, video games or spending time with other human beings.