The Business Deals Behind Slow Video Buffering and Routing Internet Traffic

By Wesley Fenlon

While ISPs haggle for more money, your Youtube video buffers eternally.

A few weeks ago we wrote about structural changes Google has been rolling out to YouTube--slicing up videos instead of uploading separate files for each resolution, from 240p up to 1080p. Ideally, the change means a smooth switch from one resolution to another without re-buffering an entire video. But sometimes buffering seems to happen no matter what; YouTube videos mysteriously stop loading altogether, or Netflix videos drop down to a blocky SD resolution even on a fast connection.

It's a frustration most of us have faced at one time or another, and Ars Technica has a great story explaining why our streaming video sometimes just won't stream. The good news is also bad news: You probably don't need a new router or modem, but if the deals between your ISP and Google and Netflix are to blame for your buffering issues, there's nothing you can do about it.

Ars' story delves into the agreements and squabbles of Internet service providers and companies like Google and Netflix. The companies that control how traffic flow through the Internet are in it for profit, after all, and often that means arguing over how they route traffic. Transporting a packet of data from one side of the country (or the world) to another requires peering agreements between major network owners, and those agreements come in several flavors. Sometimes one company has to pay another to pass along that data, and sometimes both parties agree that it's in their best interests to peer with one another.

There's also a third possibility: One company demands money, the other decides not to pay, and traffic stops dead.

This is the worst case scenario, and it doesn't happen often, but it does happen, and can make a service like Netflix, for example, completely unavailable on a certain ISP. Generally, though, our buffering issues result from another outcome: Internet companies failing to upgrade connections between their networks.

As traffic increases between big Internet networks, the companies that control them need to add more accessible ports to keep data flowing smoothly. If they don't, congestion strikes, and that has a much more dramatic effect on streaming video than on loading web pages. The story elaborates on how companies can get into these situations:

"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."

Photo credit: Dolan Geiman

Check out the rest of Ars' story to see how deep into a money hole the buffering issue goes. The end result for consumers is that sometimes our videos don't load very well, but the real issue is that ISPs like Verizon and Comcast are in a position to control the flow of data, in spite of net neutrality laws. And they're getting paid twice- or thrice-over in the process--once from home users, once from companies like Google and Netflix, and once from the providers who deliver that video from Netflix to other networks.