Comcast vs. Netflix: Who's the Villain?

Netflix has been the Internet-access industry's public enemy No. 1 ever since it began allowing customers to get the kind of so-cool service Comcast and Verizon commercials promise are just a click away, if only customers will sign up expensive broadband contracts.

Netflix and its customers were rude enough to try to take the ISPs up on that offer with a convenient, inexpensive video-streaming service that, to hear ISPs tell the story, has been clogging up the Intertubes ever since.

To everyone else, Comcast is the bad guy for appearing to selfishly stifle a service customers love. The question is, without going into mind-numbingly complex questions having to do with IP routing and Internet provisioning, does Comcast have a case?

Netflix' subscriber base has increased 270 percent since it introduced the streaming service in January, 2007, to 16.9 million at the end of September, 2010.

Netflix streaming service lets customers watch as much as they want for as little at $7 per month. (Actually, in my experience, you can only stream movies you've either already seen or that you don't really want to watch right now anyway. The movies your actually do want to watch are generally available only by mail on DVD.)

Two-thirds of all Netflix subscribers streamed at least 15 minutes of content during the third quarter, compared to 41 percent a year before.

Comcast responded by putting its fiscal and operational priorities over the needs of the customers it was hard-selling and monopolizing in most markets, and throttling the amount of Netflix traffic that could travel over its nets at any one time.

Did it have a good excuse?

Well, an October report from carrier-quality network equipment vendor Sandvine found that Netflix traffic made up 20 percent of all the traffic headed downstream from servers on the Internet to end users in the United States.

That's an awful lot. On the other hand, average household daily use in the U.S. is 4 GB per month, compared to 12 GB/month in Asia-Pacific. The report also found 3G and 4G networks are quickly ramping up their volume of traffic and impact on the Internet, which could outstrip Netflix' data volume even further.

In harder numbers, the volume of data Netflix customers downloaded nationwide increased from, at minimum, 151.3 million gigabytes during Q3 2009 to 336 million gigabytes during Q3 in 2010.

That's an average of 19.9GB per month per Netflix subscriber.

There's no way of telling how many of those Netflix subscribers are getting their movies through Comcast, but it's certainly a significant number. Let's assume they all do.

Let's also assume they get the 2MB/sec to 4MB/sec generally accepted as the average Internet access speed for cable connections, which is largely supported by the latest FCC national broadband report (PDF).

This Netflix bandwidth analysis pegs its single-user Internet hoggery at 56.3MB/min, or .93MB/sec.

Some less metric-intensive, but savvy users estimate Netflix movies at about 1GB/hour, which translates into 16.7MB/minute or .28MB/sec.

Actual bandwidth depends on the size of the picture and compression; here's a relatively technical explanation from Netflix' CTO.

Compare the higher number -- less than 1MB/sec, with even the lowest Comcast service level of 1.5 MB/sec downstream and it's clear Comcast actually doesn't have a case.

In most households, only one person watches a movie at a time. In households with only 1.5 MB/sec Internet service, it's certain only one movie is on at a time. What remains of that household's bandwidth allowance could be eaten up by Farmville or email or IM, but there's no way two people would try to cram two movies through that tiny pipe at the same time unless they like watching freeze frame.

So Comcast does not have a case.

Even if every single Comcast user was also a Netflix subscriber, the movies alone would not push them above their bandwidth usage limit, and would not overburden Comcast's backbone or edge network unless it was a lot less substantial than Comcast has promised customers it is.

Of course, during the elections in November Comcast's digital voice network got swamped by political robo calls, which is a big, stupid flashing sign that the network itself is build on silly string and broken promises.

So if Comcast is telling the truth that Netflix is overburdening it, it only has itself to blame for shortchanging its customers in the bandwidth it provides and the promises it makes.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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