Two days ago, Netflix and Comcast announced that they have come to an arrangement that should ensure quality television and movie streams for Comcast customers for the foreseeable future.
Here’s how it breaks down: Netflix will pay Comcast an undisclosed sum, and in exchange, Comcast will connect directly to Netflix’s servers, improving streaming quality for all Netflix content.
However, there’s more to it than that. If you haven’t been paying attention, the situation can seem really confusing.
Unfortunately, it seems that simply explaining what’s going on isn’t enough. Some critics have claimed that the deal may have implications regarding the concept of net neutrality. Read on to find out why that simply isn’t true.
What is net neutrality, anyway?
Net neutrality is the idea that data moving around on the Internet should be treated the same way, no matter which user or company it’s coming from or what kind of content is being moved around.
Whether you’re talking about streaming music from Spotify or sending your accountant this year’s tax documents, proponents of net neutrality think that your ISP shouldn’t be able to prioritise one group of data over another.
Wasn’t Comcast trying to slow down Netflix’s content? How is that not going against net neutrality?
Nope. While the idea that Comcast is the bad guy in this situation (everybody likes to hate on cable companies), the reality is that the whole situation has more to do with clogged (metaphorical) pipes and a debate over who should pay to add more of them.
Here are the essentials:
- Comcast isn’t slowing down Netflix’s traffic because it’s HD video or because it wants to hurt Netflix in order to support its own streaming service.
- Netflix has been using a middleman, Cogent Communications, to connect its network to Comcast and other Internet service providers while negotiating for a direct connection (which would improve stream quality). For some time, the connections where Cogent and Comcast meet have been running at capacity.
- When these interconnects run at capacity, some data packets get dropped. This reduces stream quality for Netflix subscribers who also happen to be Comcast customers. Comcast wasn’t doing this intentionally — its hardware simply couldn’t handle more incoming traffic.
- Normally, Cogent and Comcast would both pay to upgrade their interconnects. But this isn’t a normal situation: most of the traffic is moving one way, from Cogent’s network to Comcast’s. Comcast felt that in this case, Cogent/Netflix should handle the costs to upgrade.
- In the end, Netflix was left with the following options: pay Cogent to upgrade, pay another company to act as another middleman between its content and Comcast’s customers, pay Comcast to hook up directly to its servers, or have video stream quality fall further.
Netflix decided to go with the third option. Comcast will hook up directly to one of Netflix’s Open Connect servers at a third-party data center, and Netflix will pay to deliver content.
That isn’t going against net neutrality because it’s actually the norm in the industry. Companies that operate networks of servers for content distribution — like Cogent — traditionally pay ISPs for getting that data across “the last mile” into people’s homes, in arrangements known as “paid peerings.”
If you’re worried that this might increase your Netflix bill, there’s no need to get upset at Comcast. Netflix was going to have to pay more no matter what; it can’t avoid the reality that it’s sending a ton of data around on hardware with real physical limits.
Dan Rayburn has an insightful post on the topic if you’d lik a bit more context on how the Internet works from a networking perspective (you should know what the terms “peering” and “transit” mean).