If you're planning a binge on Netflix movies this weekend--or the new season of House of Cards--you may not be getting as sharp a picture as you should. That's because, if you're using AT&T or Verizon to stream video of Frank Underwood's latest dirty dealings, the video service is streaming data at slower rates and lower quality than for other users.
Why? For your own protection, the service says.
This is just the latest weird twist in the ever-more-bizarre tale of the battle over net neutrality -- the principle that ISPs and wireless providers must not favor data from one source over another, delivering it more quickly to end users. The FCC put that rule in place last summer, though its legality is being challenged in court.
Net neutrality is an important issue for small business owners -- just imagine how you would fare if your ecommerce site took 20 seconds to load while Amazon's loaded instantly because it paid for preferential treatment. But while the net neutrality rule blocks providers such as AT&T and Verizon from slowing down content they don't favor, nothing prevents content providers like Netflix from turning the tables and throttling their own data at will.
The latest episode in this ongoing saga began last week when an IT professional named Milan Milanovic, who likes to test video transmission speeds for fun, posted a video to YouTube showing that a test Netflix video streams at a lower rate on AT&T and Verizon than it does on other providers. As the test results spread, many -- including T-Mobile's CEO -- accused the nation's two largest carriers of throttling Netflix, in flagrant violation of the new neutrality rule.
It wasn't us, the carriers responded, and so Netflix came clean. It's throttling its stream on Verizon and AT&T, it explained, to save customers from unexpected data overage charges. And indeed, watching a two-hour HD movie at full data speed would be enough to use up all the free data in Verizon's $80/month plan. Netflix is not throttling its stream on T-Mobile and Sprint, it explained, because those services offer unlimited data plans, which means that if you go over your data threshold, you merely get slower data, not extra charges. Of course, this decision had nothing to do with AT&T's recent launch of its competing video service. Nothing at all.
There's so much wrong with this approach, it's hard to know where to start. How about the fact that AT&T offers unlimited data service for subscribers to its video service, which means there are millions of AT&T customers for whom overage charges aren't an issue. Not to mention the fact that Netflix itself (along with YouTube) is the reason carriers like AT&T stopped offering completely unlimited data in the first place.
Now that these doings have been exposed to the light of day, Netflix apparently realizes that they were the wrong approach. At least it's promising new technologies that will let users choose whether their data is throttled on mobile networks. "We'll provide more details as we get closer to launch," the company promises in its blog post.
Milan Milanovic will be watching.