Consumers are stuck between ISPs and content giants in the battle for online video

On Friday night I rented Pitch Perfect on Amazon’s Instant Video service and settled in for a chill evening of popcorn and cheesy singing. But the experience was less than perfect. The movie stopped roughly 15 minutes in, and once it restarted after a brief moment to load, it proceeded to stop several more times.

I called Amazon(samzn), which said it was having server issues that was causing problems for those streaming through a Roku box (I was), and got a refund for the movie. But the customer service rep said that based on my stream the Roku server issues weren’t the likely problem; my internet connection was. He said my internet service kept dropping the connection. I asked for a copy of the stream results he was looking at so I could call my ISP and find out what was going on, but that wasn’t possible. The customer service rep ended up offering to be on the phone with me while I called my ISP, something I haven’t done yet because he didn’t offer me a way to contact him other than email.

As I was on the phone with Amazon, I knew this might make a good story, so I took notes. But honestly, I didn’t want to spend Friday night troubleshooting my 30 Mbps cable broadband connection, my Roku box, my home Wi-Fi network or my inability to stream a rental via Amazon. I wanted to watch a $4 movie and relax. The trouble is that technology has enabled us to break up the process of getting a movie or TV show into many different pieces controlled by different service providers. But as we do this, we’ve have also taken out any accountability, which puts the consumer in the middle of any disputes over service quality.

Stuck in the middle with you

netflicopenconnectMy experience on Friday is just one example — other content companies are eliciting help from consumers in the quest for better quality video streams. This week Netflix said it will offer 3D movies and a higher quality stream to customers whose ISPs put a Netflix Open Connect box on their network. The Open Connect program is Netflix’s homegrown content delviery network that many ISPs in Europe are using as well as a few in the U.S. But Comcast (s scmsca), Time Warner Cable (stwc), Verizon (s vz), AT&T (s t) and CenturyLink (s ctl) — which together comprise about 61.3 million broadband customers — aren’t using the service.

Netflix has offered up a handy web site so customers can see if they can get the higher quality streams, and suggests that if they can’t, those consumers should call their ISP. So now, I’m supposed to call Time Warner Cable and ask it to make the business decision to add Netflix Connect as well as try to get tech help on my Amazon issue; possibly by asking the technician to hold and wait for me to dial back in to Amazon’s help line to find the guy who helped me on Friday. I am not excited.

So many points of failure

This box is yet another possible point of failure.
This box is yet another possible point of failure.
Other than making me get in the middle of a fight between two corporate behemoths, there are some other issues caused by the disaggregation of TV that are worth exploring. My Amazon movie, for example, was streamed from Amazon’s servers possibly to Roku’s servers before heading over the network to my house. Depending on how much Amazon and/or Roku traffic was coming into Time Warner’s network in Central Texas at that time, the packets may have been stymied there before ever reaching that last mile to my home.

It’s a well-known secret in the peering world that ISPs sometimes choke the traffic coming in from large content companies as a reason to charge them more money for the privilege of interconnecting to them. That’s suspected of happening with Free in France, and has triggered an investigation by the French telecoms authority. It’s also happened in the U.S., although most of the arguments on the issue are solved by negotiation rather than a government probe.

Should my Pitch Perfect packets hit the last mile network, they still have to run the gauntlet of all of my neighbors’ traffic (cable networks are shared, and Friday night is a great time for others to stream their own movies). Once inside my home it has to traverse my Wi-Fi network and travel through my Roku box to the TV. A congested Wi-Fi network or even glitches on my Roku may also affect the quality of my service.

Pay TV might be the option, if…

Comcast's Xfinity app
Comcast’s Xfinity app
So as you can see, there are several places where my stream can get caught up and turn my Friday night rental to a pixelated or buffering mess, even if Amazon and my cable company were on speaking terms. My ISP would argue that the solution here is that I get my videos through it via on-demand rentals. And it is right. That may become the real value that pay TV services can provide. They control the packet from its origination all the way to the home (or set-top-box in some cases) and can deliver a quality experience.

But right now, they don’t provide enough value in terms of quality of service for me to spend $100 a month. As someone who rents maybe two or three movies a month and watches one or two shows on TV, it’s not worth it. It’s like buying a Maserati when a minivan or maybe even a moped would do.

Right now the cable companies and some telcos are pushing on-demand content to more devices (YAY!) through services like Comcast’s Xfinity, which is a concession to how customers want to watch more content on their time at on the device of their choosing. However, for the most part, they are ignoring that some people don’t want everything.

The pay TV industry has fought a la carte programming for years, and may not give in now. Without a lot of competition it’s tough to see that dynamic changing — and in some cases it would upend the pay TV business model. Pay TV companies generally sign long-term contracts to channels paying them a set fee for each subscriber. Even as subscribers fall, cable companies are still paying those fees. As television makes the transition to broadband, consumers, pay TV companies and the content companies are all making sacrifices, but asking customers to mediate disputes between Amazon and an ISP shouldn’t be one of them.