Netflix has revealed that it has intentionally varied mobile streaming bitrates based on the user’s cellphone service provider. It’s now dropping the policy amid claims of hypocrisy.
The revelation came in a blog post that explained that its default bitrate for mobile viewing has been capped at a somewhat low-sounding 600 kilobits per second, something Netflix says is “about striking a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers.”
However, the company has confirmed to Wall Street Journal that this cap hasn’t actually been applied equally. It says that it doesn’t limit streaming speeds for customers at Sprint and T-Mobile because ” historically those two companies have had more consumer-friendly policies.” Specifically that’s because their data plans mean people going over a monthly cap simply get a slowed connection for the rest of the month rather than a per-GB overage fee.
Sensible as the policy may have been in practice, it’s raised a few eyebrows given Netflix’s campaigning for net neutrality, an issue that’s obviously in its interests given it makes up a large proportion of data use and is a natural target for carriers looking for something to slow down or restrict.
It’s really a case of the letter vs the spirit of net neutrality regulations. You could argue that technically Netflix isn’t treating different data packets in a different way, but rather treating the same data packet in a different way depending on the recipient’s chosen carrier. You could also argue that net neutrality only applies to carriers and not to content providers. On the other hand, you can definitely argue that the policy hasn’t really been in line with the wider ethos and aims of net neutrality.
In any case, Netflix is now changing tack and will be introducing an option for customers to adjust their data connection speed setting to suit their own balance between higher video quality and staying to data caps. The precise details will come nearer launch time, currently planned for May.