Media Content Providers: The New ISP Watchdogs

ISP WatchDogAs video consumption on the Internet continues to surge, bandwidth bottlenecks become more prevalent as well. Even though video content providers like YouTube and Netflix have loads of bandwidth at the head end, they are almost powerless when it comes to controlling the throughput of the pipes that connect them to the end users… Almost. One way major providers have sought to combat this problem is to make content caching servers (edges essentially) available for deployment directly within the networks of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Netflix offers their Open Connect solution to allow ISPs to source popular content from directly within their networks. YouTube deploys similar solutions, and also offers an open peering policy that essentially provides a low cost way for ISPs to plumb directly into YouTube's content network. While these are great options for improving video delivery, they are also voluntary options from the ISP perspective. Likewise, if the ISPs voluntarily agree to leverage one of these options, they might be cutting into a potential revenue stream - as demonstrated by the recent agreement between Netflix and Comcast. In this instance, Netflix set the dangerous precedent of paying Comcast for improved access to their mutual customers. This may incentivize ISPs to avoid voluntary delivery improvement configurations with major providers in favor of holding the end-users hostage for more lucrative terms. Basically, the ISPs have the option of billing their users for access to content from content providers while also charging the content providers for quality access to their subscribers. Not a bad deal. I should note, however, that the ISPs have an arguably valid point of view as well. Should they be expected to create special configurations in support of any emerging content provider at no additional cost? Regardless of which position one takes, the situation creates an interesting dilemma for the content providers, and content providers are beginning to tackle the problem through consumer education. Netflix has had an ISP speed index for some time now. The index rates ISPs based on their ability to deliver quality media streams to customers. It's Netflix's way to celebrate those that perform well and publicly shame those that perform poorly. Ideally, a consumer looking to subscribe to the Internet for over-the-top (OTT) content would check the index before signing on the bottom line with their ISP. At a minimum, it allows consumers to see how their providers perform relative to others so that they can put pressure on their ISP to improve. Now, YouTube is getting into this game with the launch of their new Video Quality Report. It seeks to teach users about how video delivery works, rate their ISP, and YouTube Speed Testcompare them to other local providers. Of the two, I feel YouTube does a better job of educating the average user as to how video moves through the Internet and why their ISP performance matters, but the intended outcomes are the same: informed consumers will drive better behavior by the ISPs they rely on. Today, ISP advertising and marketing promotes bandwidth and speed capabilities very generically. With mounting pressure from content providers, market differentiation in this space may start to stem from these types of provider specific metrics. Overall bandwidth claims may start to have less meaning for consumers than the end-to-end performance ratings assigned by the content providers those consumers value most. Update: Related Info - Dan Rayburn (of StreamingMedia.com) recently posted an article about ISP specific messages being delivered by Netflix to alert viewers when the ISP's bandwidth is congested.  Netflix recently announced that this practice is a test that will conclude on June 16th.
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