Has the quality of your Netflix streaming gone down recently, but nothing's changed on your end and you know you pay for fast enough speeds to stream in HD? You're not going insane or losing your eyesight. It's happening to a lot of people, and there's a very simple explanation for it: Your Internet service provider hates how much Netflix you watch.
Netflix requires 5 Mbps to stream in HD, which is likely well below the theoretical speeds you're already paying for, however recent speed charts have shown that major ISPs like Verizon and AT&T have steadily been dropping their Netflix connection speeds over the last few months. In October of 2013, a Verizon customer could get about 2.25 Mbps when streaming from Netflix in primetime. In February 2014, that number dropped to 1.75 Mbps, well below the three Mbps Netflix needs to deliver even DVD quality streams.
Netflix streaming now makes up for an absurd amount of Web traffic, but while it keeps gaining new costumers, cable companies have not seen an increase. In fact, customers are cutting cable in record numbers these days and going Internet only. So in an attempt to combat these lost revenues, and to put the squeeze on a competing service, ISPs are routing Netflix-specific traffic using antiquated channels, slowing everything down. Essentially what they're doing is saying, "Oh, geez, look at all this bandwidth your users need. Maybe you should pay us so we can upgrade our network."
If that sounds pretty sketchy, it's because it is, and that's why so many analysts and net neutrality activists were angry when Netflix actually agreed to pay Comcast an undisclosed sum in order to get Netflix subscribers a more direct connection. Now all the other ISPs are holding out their hand, too, and currently there's no indication either party is going to give in anytime soon. That means you, the customer, who already pays both Netflix and your ISP, will continue to get poor performance from both until one of two things happen. Either Netflix will cave and pay money directly to the ISPs to get priority network access, or the government will step in with new regulation saying that ISPs can't selectively limit traffic to certain services. Don't expect either to happen anytime soon.
So what can you do about it? Well, you can consult Netflix's ISP report card and see if you can switch to a better provider in your area. If you live in the US, Google Fiber, Cablevision, Cox, Suddenlink, Charter and Time Warner Cable are currently the most reliable ISPs for streaming speeds. If you have one of those in your area but subscribe to someone else, you could switch and see a potential bump in quality. And if you do switch, make sure you tell them this is why you're doing it when you cancel your business with them.
If no better competition is available, you can also try a VPN, which is basically a way of rerouting traffic so that it's not following the standard chain from the ISP to your door. In doing so, it's possible that the Netflix stream may take a less-congested route to your TV, and thus actually come in fast enough for HD. If you're relatively tech savvy and interested in giving this a shot, we recommend Ars Technica's guide.
Beyond that, sadly we movie lovers just have to sit and wait to see who blinks in this network standoff. If it's Netflix and it agrees to pay ISPs for better network performance (which would be the saddest outcome, as it'd be a blow to Net neutrality), you can certainly expect Netflix to raise your bill to cover its new costs. If the government steps in and says ISPs can't limit service, then it'll be ISPs that raise their prices. Either way, you can expect your streaming quality to get worse before it gets better. Unless you have Comcast, in which case the fee Netflix paid it seems to already be improving service.
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