Video Streaming Is Straining, But Who Will Ease The Tension? : All Tech Considered Services like Netflix take up a lot of bandwidth, and their increasing popularity is fueling a dispute between these companies and the Internet service providers that carry them.

Video Streaming Is Straining, But Who Will Ease The Tension?

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More and more people are watching television shows streamed over the Internet through services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. These programs take up a huge amount of digital bandwidth. And that's led to a big dispute between these services and the Internet service providers that carry them. NPR's Jim Zarroli explains.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At their home in New Jersey, Suzie Felber and her family watch a lot of streaming video over the Internet.

SUZIE FELBER: In fact, my kids have no idea. They're only just learning what a commercial is and they start screaming when they come on. They think the TV is broken.

ZARROLI: The Felbers access the Internet through Verizon FiOS and it's worked pretty well, until recently, that is. Felber says a few days ago, she and her husband were trying to watch the blockbuster Netflix series "House of Cards" and something weird happened.

FELBER: It went from high def to low def, but it wasn't high-def very much. And then it was pixilating like the game Minecraft. It was just little boxes. It looked sort of like when we tried to watch video on the Internet in 1998.

ZARROLI: Anecdotally, at least, the same thing appears to have happened to a lot of Netflix customers in recent days, just as the second season of "House of Cards" was being released. Richard Broughton, head of broadband at HIS, says programs likes these take up a lot of digital bits and bytes.

RICHARD BROUGHTON: As these are really taking off and as people watch more and more video, obviously that means the effect is multiplied many, many times over. And it's this that's causing the immediate apparent strain on the networks.

ZARROLI: And this has provoked a simmering conflict between video companies like Netflix and the Internet service providers they rely on. Big ISPs like Verizon have made no secret of the fact that they resent the huge strain on their network's cost by companies like Netflix. Jeff Silva is a telecommunications analyst at Medley Group Advisors.

JEFF SILVA: Just using the Netflix example, uses a lot of bandwidth and it takes money and a lot of infrastructure to support that. And it also has implications for the rest of the traffic.

ZARROLI: Critics suggest these big ISPs aren't building out their networks enough to keep pace with the huge growth in demand. Many critics say the company can get away with this because U.S. providers don't face a lot of real competition. One of the ways that Internet companies have flexed their muscle involves something called peering. Again, Jeff Silva.

SILVA: It's one of those components of the Internet that you don't hear as much about, but it's pretty integral to how the Internet works.

ZARROLI: Peering is a way for Internet companies to share bandwidth when they need it. Verizon has had a peering agreement with an Internet provider named Cogent, but the two companies have had a dispute over who should pay for network improvements. And Cogent has accused Verizon of doing things that clogged up Internet traffic. Verizon denies that. Richard Broughton says there was a similar dispute in South Korea a few years ago and it was ultimately arbitrated by the government. And he says the same thing may have to happen now.

BROUGHTON: Certainly, I think there's a role for regulatory intervention to ensure that both parties are getting a fair deal out of it, that consumers get access to the services they want to.

ZARROLI: But such an intervention seems unlikely. U.S. regulators and Internet providers are locked in a bitter legal battle over the issue of net neutrality. It's essentially a fight over whether companies like Verizon and Comcast can favor some content providers over others. The courts recently issued a ruling siding with the Internet companies, but the Federal Communications Commission made clear this week, it hasn't given up on its efforts to enforce net neutrality. Meanwhile, the full promise of video streaming remains on hold, even as it grows more and more popular with consumers.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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