Netflix hit 20 million subscribers last year, and with reportedly over 60% of their subscribers streaming video over the Internet, the pressure they are putting on the Internet as a delivery system for television shows and movies has taken center stage lately. Netflix holds the most notoriety as the leader of the pack, but Hulu and even DirecTV through its on-demand service delivered over your broadband connection have been at it for years.
The heart of the problem is that a single movie viewed in a day can consume magnitudes more bandwidth than a traditional Internet user will consume in a day through typical Internet browsing, email and social network use. Consider this example graphing a day of “traditional” Internet use for a single home in which a total of 150 Megabytes of data is downloaded in short bursts of use:
Then consider the graph with a Netflix movie on a Netflix rated “Medium Quality” connection where nearly 1500 Megabytes is consumed:
And then the network operator’s nightmare customer that runs a webcam uploading a nearly constant 700 Kbps, and downloads Season 3 of Dora the Explorer on Itunes for a whopping 10 Gigabytes of data transferred:
Consumer Internet access in its current state is designed to support the usage in the first example, and there is generally enough flexibility and capacity to support a small proportion of heavy Internet users without slowing everybody down. A parallel example is the sewer system: only a few people in a particular neighborhood happen to flush their toilet at the same time, and the sewer pipes are generally big enough to support to the anomalous times of heavy simultaneous usage like half-time during the Superbowl. Now imagine if everyone in your neighborhood replaced their 1.6 gallon toilet tanks with 16 gallon tanks, with a few of the geekier neighbors dropping in 160 gallon tanks. There would be a whole lot of wet bathroom floors pretty quickly all over your neighborhood as the sewer system backed up. In the case of an Internet access network clogged up with video, we face the prospect of crawling speeds as computers on either end of the connection wait their turn to send packets through the network.
On the bright side, expanding the capacity of the Internet to accommodate video distribution is a lot more feasible than retrofitting all the sewer systems in the world. The big question is who will pay for it? The cost to deliver large amounts of one way video has traditionally been paid for by the consumer in the form of a cable TV or satellite bill. In the case of nearly defunct broadcast TV it was paid by the advertisers. Streaming video providers like Netflix are simply poaching the Internet connection of the consumer and shifting a large portion of the delivery cost on to the Internet access provider. Internet access providers like Comcast are chafing at bearing the cost of delivering Netflix’s movies across their Internet network, and to add insult to injury are also faced with the long-term prospect of losing their cable TV customers to streaming content providers. Last November Comcast threw a challenge flag onto the playing field in the form of a well-publicized dispute with Level 3, a deliverer of Netflix content, and has been battling along with Verizon against the FCC over their net neutrality efforts that would forbid network providers from discriminating against any content. Video doesn’t belong on the Internet in its current form, and without a mechanism to ensure providers and consumers of video pay their share of the delivery costs, we may very well wind up back in the days of dial-up speeds. In the mean time the Internet creaks a little bit each time Netflix adds a new streaming subscriber.
Author’s Note: I am a huge fan of Netflix and believe they are one of the most transformational companies of the Internet age. I also can’t argue with the convenience of streaming video, but as a network operator I acutely feel the stress it puts on the current model of Internet access.