NETFLIX, INC. LOGO
Author
Colin Dixon
Date
December 13, 2012

Did you ever wonder if Netflix would work better if you switched your ISP? Tuesday Netflix announced that it will tell you. Ken Florance, Vice President of Content Delivery at Netflix, blogged that the company would begin publishing monthly performance rankings of US  ISPs based on the streaming performance on each network.

In the November rankings, Google Fiber tops the list with an average speed for Netflix streams of 2.55 mbps (megabits per second). This is followed closely by Verizon FiOS at 2.19. Comcast and Charter top the cable broadband providers with an average speed of 2.17 mbps. DSL providers such Verizon and AT&T fall toward the bottom of the list with average speeds of 1.42 and 1.37 mbps respectively. Bringing up the rear are cellular networks such as AT&T and Sprint with speeds of 0.48 and 0.56 mbps. Unsurprisingly the list makes clear that, in the hierarchy of broadband technologies, fiber beats cable beats DSL beats wireless.

Netflix publishing this data is an unusual step. The company clearly has an interest in ensuring that its customers receive the best possible experience using its service. But some have suggested the company is attempting to shame poor performing providers into improving performance. This might also be an attempt by the company to deflect blame for poor performance from them to the ISP. Whatever the reason, I expect to see a lot more companies providing data such as the ISP rankings in the coming months.

The reason for this expected onslaught of video streaming data is simple. CDNs (content delivery networks) have unprecedented access to information about the performance of video streaming throughout the network. Conviva is a company that helps CDNs optimize their networks and mine the wealth of data at their disposal. I recently spoke with Darren Feher, President and CEO of Conviva, and he told me that the company can measure all sorts of information about video performance, including:

  • Video Start Failures – what percentage of requested video streams failed to start
  • Buffering Impacted Viewing – when video gets delayed in the network possibly leading to video playback problems
  • Exits Before Start – when a viewer gets bored of waiting for a video to start and quits the playback

What’s more this data can be related back to a particular video streaming service or ISP.

The reason companies such as Conviva and Netflix (remember, Netflix now runs its own CDN) can provide such detailed information is because of the nature of video streaming technology on the web today. Almost all of the best video streaming sites use a technology called adaptive bitrate streaming (ABR). As its name suggests, delivering video with this technology allows the video stream to adapt to current conditions in the network. If there isn’t much bandwidth available ABR switches to a lower bandwidth stream and when bandwidth improves it switches back to a higher bandwidth stream. All the viewer would have noticed during these changes is the video picture quality getting a bit fuzzy and then returning to normal again. But this process generates a ton of data: data that can be related directly to quality of experience.

Akamai, one of the biggest CDNs in the world, is already providing a lot of data about Internet performance in the quarterly State of the Internet report. In 2013, I expect to see much more information from a variety of sources on the state of video streaming on the Internet. This will give us all a much better picture of how well the web is doing in the delivery of video services and provide insight into how it might handle the ongoing transition of video to IP in the future.

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