FCC's Wheeler Says He's Looking Into the ISP-Netflix Issue

NEWS ANALYSIS: Tom Wheeler, like the rest of us, hates to wait for Netflix to buffer. We all deserve to know what's going on, he's announced.


For some Americans, the net neutrality issue can be summed up in whether or not Orange Is the New Black streams without bogging. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler knows this, and in a June 13 statement he reminded Americans that he's on the case.

"Consumers pay their ISPs [Internet service providers] and they pay content providers like Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. Then when they don't get good service they wonder what is going on," wrote Wheeler. "I have experienced these problems myself and know how exasperating it can be."

He continued, "Consumers must get what they pay for. As the consumers' representative, we need to know what is going on. I have therefore directed the Commission staff to obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening."

Wheeler also clarified that while the practices of ISPs, and particularly acts such as blocking or slowing down content, have fallen under the net neutrality umbrella, this is "another area of Internet access" that recent disputes between content provider Netflix and various ISPs have highlighted.

The matter is also an important one for the FCC to get straightened out, as it's in the process of deciding whether Comcast and Time Warner Cable, two of the larger ISPs, should be allowed to merge, as well as whether AT&T, which also offers Internet service, can purchase satellite TV provider DirecTV.

Netflix has made no secret of the fact that it pays (with gritted teeth) ISPs such as Verizon a hefty sum to ensure that its content streams into subscribers' living rooms as quickly as they expect. Recently, however, when users experienced slow buffering times, Netflix began explaining to them, when appropriate, that the fault was with the Verizon network and not Netflix's service.

"The Verizon network is crowded right now. Adjusting video for smoother playback," said the message beside a triangle with an explanation point.

Verizon responded on June 5 by threatening to sue Netflix if it didn't stop displaying such error messages. It also said that Netflix had tried to save money by using "middle-man networks" to reach consumers.

Netflix responded with a June 9 blog post in which it said that it doesn't "purposely select congested routes" but rather pays "some of the world's largest transit networks to deliver Netflix video right to the front door of an ISP." Where the trouble begins is at the door, "when the broadband provider hasn't provided enough capacity to accommodate the traffic their customer requested."

Netflix also posted an ISP Speed Index that it said was designed to "provide transparency and help consumers understand the Internet access they're actually getting from their ISP."

The average Netflix stream, said Nexflix, is about 2M bps. According to the Index, during the month of May, Cablevision Optimum offered the highest average speed, 3.03M bps, while Verizon DSL (in 16th place) offered the lowest average speed, 1.05M bps.

Comcast, which Netflix points out fell two slots to fifth place, had a May speed average of 2.72M bps, while Time Warner, at 2.45M bps, came in sixth.

The FCC's Wheeler says he's not blaming any company at this point, but is rather "looking under the hood."

"The bottom line," he added, "is that consumers need to understand what is occurring when the Internet service they've paid for does not adequately deliver the content they desire, especially content they've also paid for. … It's important that we know [what's going on]—and that consumers know."

It's also critical that in the merger decisions ahead, the FCC is clear on exactly what it's giving a red or green light to.

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