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Netflix offers a way to rate broadband ISPs

January 27, 2011 |  4:34 pm

Netflix data Netflix released some thought-provoking data Thursday that could help consumers torn between DSL and cable-modem service. Judging by those numbers, if your top priority is streaming video, go with cable modem.

The company issued the first of what it said would be monthly charts tracking how well different broadband Internet service providers delivered Netflix's high-definition movie streams. The faster the delivery (i.e., the higher the throughput), the better the picture quality is.

Those streams leave Netflix's servers at 4.8 Mbps, but the servers routinely downshift to slower data rates when they confront congestion on the path to the customer's home. (Netflix tries to keep that path as short as possible by using content delivery networks operated by the likes of Level 3.) How much they have to downshift -- and sacrifice picture quality -- depends in part on how much bandwidth the customer buys. But it also depends on how well the ISP manages the traffic on the facilities that its customers share.

According to Netflix, the seven ISPs with the best throughput are all cable operators: Charter, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Suddenlink, Cablevision and Cable One. They all offered throughputs this month from 2.3 Mbps to 2.7 Mbps. Verizon and AT&T were next, clocking in at 2 Mbps to 2.2 Mbps in January. At the bottom of the list were Clearwire, a wireless broadband provider, and regional telephone companies Frontier and CenturyLink, which delivered throughputs of 1.4 Mbps to 1.6 Mbps this month.

Before Charter starts gloating, it should note that Rogers, a Canadian cable operator, averaged 3 Mbps in the Netflix HD tests.

The test is one way for Netflix, whose streams account for more than 20% of U.S. Internet traffic during peak times, to goad ISPs into improving throughput. ISPs, meanwhile, want Netflix to pick up more of the cost of delivering streams on their networks -- an idea that gets little or no support from Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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