YouTube streaming giving you trouble lately? Well, it's not just you. According to an in-depth expose by Ars Technica, a number of major ISPs are letting video streaming performance degrade as part of dirty negotiation tactics with content providers.
The negotiations center on peering, the mutually beneficial facilitation of traffic between major networks, and caching, the practice of storing data as close as possible to the point of delivery. In a perfect world, ISPs would have their customers' best interests at heart; they would upgrade peering connections as needed and take advantage of caching services offered by the likes of Google and Netflix. (Those companies provide caching servers that ISPs can deploy on their networks.)
This isn't a perfect world, though, and it turns out that many, if not most large ISPs want a payoff from the content providers who send data their way. Those ISPs appear to be motivated partly by an urge to safeguard their cable TV services and partly by a desire to rake in extra cash by putting content providers in a bind. Ars cites many examples of spats between ISPs and content providers, including this one:
"Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner," Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. "Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput."
Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that "AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch."
Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.
That practice is not against the law. The FCC's Open Internet Order mandates net neutrality in principle, but Ars says it specifically includes an exemption related to peering agreements. "We do not intend our rules to affect existing arrangements for network interconnection, including existing paid peering arrangements," the FCC states.
Ars goes into a surprising amount of detail about the issue, and I recommend reading the full article to find out just how dire the situation is.
Fortunately, there are ways around this problem. Ars quotes some smaller ISPs who claim not to engage in the same dirty tactics as their bigger peers. Also, some folks have come up with firewall-based workarounds that bypass YouTube's cache servers and somehow speed things up. You'll find instructions on Reddit, the DSLreports forums, and this wiki, which also covers Linux.
I'm located in the great white north presently, and I can't say I've had problems with sluggish YouTube or Netflix streaming. However, Scott has complained of painfully slow YouTube streaming on his 50Mbps Time Warner Cable connection in the Kansas City area. One would think paying top dollar for top-tier Internet service would guarantee reliable YouTube streaming—but that's clearly not the case. (Thanks to long-time TR reader Josh Maizel for the heads-up on this story.)