After months of complaints by Netflix, the Federal Communications Commission is beginning to look into the streaming quality issues that Netflix subscribers have been seeing on Comcast and Verizon. Netflix has been in a heated and public battle with internet providers over network congestion that's supposedly slowing its service down, with both sides pinning responsibility on the other. "Consumers pay their ISP and they pay content providers like Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Then when they don’t get good service they wonder what is going on," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says in a statement. "I have experienced these problems myself and know how exasperating it can be."
"Consumers must get what they pay for."
The FCC has obtained the terms of the agreements that Netflix made with both Comcast and Verizon earlier this year that have it paying them both in order to resolve these issues. The FCC says that it doesn't yet have a full understanding of what's occurring between the companies, and it's continuing to evaluate to see who's at fault for the connection problems. "Consumers must get what they pay for," Wheeler says. "As the consumer’s representative we need to know what is going on." Wheeler says that the FCC is continuing to request information from internet and content providers.
Wheeler stresses that the FCC is not taking a regulatory step at this time, and that it's merely collecting information on the circumstances of this increasingly vocal series of complaints. While the commission is working on net neutrality rules that would protect against a similar issue, they don't actually protect the area of the network that's in contention between Netflix, Comcast, and Verizon. As Wheeler puts it, this issue regards the "exchange of traffic between ISPs and other networks and services," rather than between internet providers and consumers, which net neutrality rules largely govern. Netflix has argued that the scope of net neutrality should be expanded to cover these paid interconnect deals, although many big tech companies — including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — have reportedly paid ISPs for the same thing.
Verizon disagrees with that reasoning, however. "Internet traffic exchange has always been handled through commercial agreements," a Verizon spokesperson tells The Verge. "This has worked well for the internet ecosystem and consumers. We are hopeful that policy makers will recognize this fact and that the internet will continue to be the engine of growth of the global economy."
"Consumers want transparency. They want answers."
Comcast is far more welcoming of the FCC's actions, saying that the FCC is paying attention to important issues to the internet. "We welcome this review which will allow the commission full transparency into the entire internet backbone ecosystem and enable full education as to how this market work," a Comcast spokesperson says in a statement. Comcast says that it's long published its policies on the type of connection that's at issue between Netflix and internet providers. And while it agrees that consumers should be at the forefront of the FCC's mind, it does say that business models shouldn't fall within its scope.
For now, the FCC says that it does not know which, if any, company is at fault. It's saying this initial inquiry is for the purposes of transparency, helping to get to the bottom of this speed issue. That's something that Netflix is happy to see. It's been releasing its own speed reports for over a year now in an attempt to shed its own light on internet speeds and to put pressure on providers to step it up. "We welcome the FCC's efforts to bring more transparency in this area," a Netflix spokesperson tells The Verge. "Americans deserve to get the speed and quality of internet access they pay for."
Of course, Netflix's biggest ally in this fight right now isn't any regulatory body: it's its subscribers, who just want to watch movies that look good. It's the reason Netflix has taken measures like informing its customers when it believes that an internet provider is at fault for quality issues, and even the reason that its Twitter account has been retweeting Onion articles about how awful cable companies are. And clearly, it's worked. Wheeler says that he's been getting emails about Netflix, and he wants to make sure that consumers aren't being harmed. "Consumers want transparency. They want answers," Wheeler says. "And so do I."