Skip to main content

Internet traffic jams are widespread in the US, and are probably about to get a lot worse

Internet traffic jams are widespread in the US, and are probably about to get a lot worse


It's not just Netflix and Comcast that are to blame

Share this story

Getty Images
Getty Images

Earlier this week the research consortium M-Lab released a big report on the way data moves through the guts of our internet infrastructure. It focused on interconnection points, the shared equipment nodes where different networks exchange data so that it can move around the world and into your home. What it showed was that business disputes — between transit ISPs like Cogent and Level, which carry data around the world, and access ISPs like Verizon and Comcast, which carry it the last mile to your home — were having a dramatic effect on the ability of many American consumers and businesses to access the internet, reducing the flow of data to the point where even basic tasks like email would be slow or impossible.

The same data means provides evidence for two opposite conclusions

This was important new research that highlighted how strained the infrastructure underpinning our internet is. But depending on which side of the business dispute you sit on, the data showed two very different things. For ISP advocates, the data was clear evidence that Netflix was to blame for the degradation in service. For ISP opponents, the data was clear evidence that Comcast and Verizon were trying to punish Netflix, and harming others in the process. But as the author of the M-Lab study argues, that heated argument is causing them to miss the forest for the trees. "What’s more important, and more troubling, is the extensive and continuing issues of capacity at many of the interconnections points which had nothing to do with Netflix," said Collin Anderson, a researcher at M-Lab.

If the congestion had been isolated to a single interconnection between one transit and one access ISP, it might have been possible to lay the blame on Netflix or Comcast for allowing things to degrade while they bargained over the price of a direct interconnection. But the M-Lab study found that "these issues cannot be laid at the feet of any one Access ISP, or any one Transit ISP: no Access ISP performs badly to all Transit ISPs, and no Transit ISP performs badly for all Access ISPs. Therefore, if the problem is not at one end, and not at the other, it must be in the middle around the interconnection between the two." As the companies that move our data haggle over who should foot the bill for the exploding amount of internet traffic, our most vital modern utility can become nearly inaccessible to consumers.

Our most vital communications utility can become nearly inaccessible to consumers

The report found the problems follow a predictable pattern, one that not surprisingly is also at the center of Netflix's dispute with ISPs. "Observed performance degradation was nearly always diurnal, such that performance for access ISP customers was significantly worse during peak use hours, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the hours between 7pm and 11pm local time. This allows us to conclude that congestion and under-provisioning were causal factors in the observed degradation symptoms." We’re increasingly relying on the internet for our evening entertainment, and that is where the real problems are cropping up. That’s Netflix, but also Hulu, YouTube, Twitch, and millions of other services. With cable channels and network broadcaster both embracing a streaming only model, this problem is going to get a lot worse, and soon.

How can this problem be solved? Netflix would argue that the FCC should expand the definition of net neutrality to cover interconnection, and force the access ISPs to pay for interconnection upgrades to handle consumer’s ever larger demands for internet entertainment. The FCC has signaled it will look into interconnections, but is not likely to place them in the same bucket as net neutrality. The ISPs have argued that Netflix is just looking for a free ride, and that content companies should pay them for a direct interconnect. Netflix has done this, and the performance of its traffic has improved drastically. HBO recently signaled that it believed content companies and ISPs should share the financial burden of upgrading our infrastructure to handle the increased demand of streaming entertainment.

To some degree, the marketplace works

One could look at the Netflix situation and conclude that the marketplace works. After they paid up, things got better, and the cost for Netflix was less than what they paid to third party transit ISPs. The problem for Netflix is that they don’t want to be beholden to the big access ISPs, many of which also own content companies that compete with Netflix. If the cost for a direct connect were to change in the future, Netflix is worried Comcast and Verizon would have all the leverage.

That brings us back to the nuclear option: the FCC using Title II to declare our broadband internet infrastructure a common carrier. That would turn Comcast and Verizon’s infrastructure into dumb pipes shared by all, allowing any company to offer itself up as an access ISP, something which worked well in England and France. And as we’ve reported, this is exactly how Verizon itself described the fiber when it was getting tax breaks and right of way to put it into the ground.

Given the relative timidity of the FCC and the ISPs winning record in court, however, this seems unlikely to happen. Which means for the time being we’re left with a troubling state of affairs, one in which companies haggling over costs is threatening the performance of our most important communication and information utility. As M-Lab concluded in its report, "ISP interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer internet performance --sometimes a severely negative impact -- and that business relationships between ISPs, and not major technical problems, are at the root of the problems we observed."

Image on social from / Flickr

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 25 minutes ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

The Verge
Richard Lawler25 minutes ago
Green light.

Good morning to everyone, except for the intern or whoever prevented us from seeing how Microsoft’s Surface held up to yet another violent NFL incident.

Today’s big event is the crash of a NASA spaceship this evening — on purpose. Mary Beth Griggs can explain.

David Pierce31 minutes ago
Thousands and thousands of reasons people love Android.

“Android fans, what are the primary reasons why you will never ever switch to an iPhone?” That question led to almost 30,000 comments so far, and was for a while the most popular thing on Reddit. It’s a totally fascinating peek into the platform wars, and I’ve spent way too much time reading through it. I also laughed hard at “I can turn my text bubbles to any color I like.”

Thomas Ricker7:29 AM UTC
Table breaks before Apple Watch Ultra’s sapphire glass.

”It’s the most rugged and capable Apple Watch yet,” said Apple at the launch of the Apple Watch Ultra (read The Verge review here). YouTuber TechRax put that claim to the test with a series of drop, scratch, and hammer tests. Takeaways: the titanium case will scratch with enough abuse, and that flat sapphire front crystal is tough — tougher than the table which cracks before the Ultra fails — but not indestructible.

Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.