December 19, 2014 12:22 PM

The Netflix/Comcast Dispute Pt. 2: Was Netflix Surprised?

As we mentioned yesterday, Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits companies from engaging in "unfair or deceptive acts or practices."  A lot of the FTC's inquiry focuses how a reasonable consumer would expect to be treated.  Today we'll look at Netflix's contention that, as an OVD, Comcast has an incentive to discriminate against it.  We'll also look at whether Netflix, when it changed its manner of distribution to customers of large ISPs (i.e., most U.S. customers) in 2013, observed ordinary distribution practices for providers of video streaming service.  

If Netflix seems to be the victim of a discriminatory refusal by Comcast to continue to provide uncompensated inbound capacity to Netflix's transit providers (notwithstanding the parties agreed-upon limits of settlement-free capacity), then it couldn't have expected congestion would affect its service. Similarly, if Netflix used normal industry practices for distributing streaming video service, then it could not have foreseen that its service would fail to meet reasonable consumer expectations--and could not have been expected to disclose to these consumers that their grade of service would be below "normal."  

Does Comcast Have an Incentive to Discriminate Against Netflix?

Demonstrating the "incentive/ability to discriminate/exclude" is an essential allegation for any complainant to establish as part of a credible theory of unilateral harm to competition by a dominant firm.  In its Petition to Deny the Comcast-TWC Merger, Netflix attempts to satisfy this element by reciting general statements by the DoJ and FCC to justify settlement conditions in prior mergers.  Netflix recites theoretical statements that an integrated MVPD/ISP (i.e., Comcast) "may" have the incentive discriminate against an OVD.  Netflix seems to be hoping the Commission will assume that it is that hypothetical OVD/discrimination target; and, given that Comcast ("Satan's ISP®") is involved, it's doubtful the FCC will question Netflix's implied victimization.
 
Netflix Service Is a Complement to MVPD Service.  Netflix never directly says that it has been the target of discrimination by Comcast.  Even if we assume that Comcast would--irrationally, according to this GigaOm analysis--favor its lower margin service over its higher margin service (to which Netflix is critical), there is no evidence that Netflix's streaming video service is a substitute for Comcast's subscription video service. 

Instead, all available evidence suggests the contrary--that Netflix offers a complementary service.  Netflix's CEO has said as much, as have the cable companies and satellite companies that want to make Netflix accessible on their set-top boxes, and the large ISPs that offer "free" Netflix service as a marketing tool to attract new customers to their higher tiered services. 

Thus, it is unlikely that Comcast would intentionally degrade such an important complementary service as Netflix, because any devaluation of a complementary service damages the value of the other complementary component (Comcast).  Moreover, if Netflix believed that it was the target of anticompetitive tactics by Comcast, it would not have waited for a merger before complaining to--or filing a complaint with--the FCC or the DoJ. 

Did Netflix Use Reasonable Methods to Deliver Streaming Videos?

Since various parts of the FTC's unfair or deceptive analysis focus on practices that a "reasonable" person might consider unfair or misleading, let's try to get an idea of how other online streaming content is delivered--as the quality of other similar services informs consumers' reasonable expectations regarding online streaming video quality.  Since Netflix's customers noticed that Netflix's congestion-affected service was below their expectations, let's look at how other providers of online streaming video distribute the quality consumers expect of "streaming video service" generally.     

WWE Network.  The same week that Netflix announced its direct interconnection agreement with Comcast, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) launched the WWE Network--a 24/7 online channel broadcast in 720 HD.  Moreover, because the WWE was, for many years, the largest consistent source of MVPD pay-per-view revenues, it would seem that the cable companies would not want to see this content successfully migrate from the MPVD platform to the Internet.

The WWE Network has received generally good reviews with respect to its streaming performance; and no complaints of ISP discrimination have surfaced.  The WWE Network is delivered through a partnership with MLB Advanced Media.  MLBAM, in turn, uses the Akamai and Level 3 CDNs. 

Free Porn.  As the Tony award winning musical, Avenue Q, reminds us (and the FCC is well aware), "[t]he Internet is for porn."   When you stop smirking, consider that many estimate that the volume of adult site traffic is comparable to Netflix's share of Internet traffic. See here, and here.  Moreover, like the WWE Network, the migration of adult videos to the Internet has hurt cable companies' PPV revenues.     
 
Mind Geek is the largest of all streaming adult video providers; its CTO says the company is one of the top 5 consumers of Internet bandwidth in the world.  Mind Geek uses "two of the largest CDNs in the world" to carry its traffic--not that much different from the way Netflix distributed videos (when it cared about congestion).

The "Next Netflix." Every smaller streaming site that I looked at, and which discussed their Internet transit partners, used more transit networks than Netflix.  Many providers that focus on hosting video streaming also offer multiple "CDN-style" server sites at multiple points within major ISP service territories.  See, e.g., Rackspace (9 transit networks & 219 edge locations) and AdultHost.com, which "ensure[s] congestion free" content delivery by: 1) sending packets over the "least congested" route (vs. shortest, like BGP), 2) uses at least 7 different Internet transit networks.    

So, it seems unlikely that Comcast tried to degrade Netflix's traffic by deliberately allowing its transit providers' interconnection points to congest.  Similarly, it doesn't seem like Netflix even used the same standards of distribution that a free porn monopoly provides viewers.  Thus, it was plausible that Netflix knew its customers in Comcast's territory were in for a prolonged period of substandard service.  In the next post, we'll look at the possible implications under the FTC Act. 


***Relevant Facts***

Here is a brief recitation of the relevant facts for purposes of our discussion.  Unless otherwise cited, the facts are taken from the Declaration of Ken Florance http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7521825167 , Netflix's Vice President of Content Delivery, submitted in support of Netflix's Petition to Deny the Comcast-TWC Merger (FCC Docket No. 14-57).

For most of the history of Netflix's streaming video delivery service, Netflix believes that Comcast has required Netflix's third party vendors to pay an additional fee to cover some (or all) of the cost of Netflix-specific capacity augmentation at interconnection points.  Netflix describes 3 instances between 2009 and 2010 where it believes CDNs needed to purchase additional capacity to alleviate congestion issues. Florance Declaration ¶¶ 29-41.

Netflix acknowledges that the volume of its traffic does increase demand for ISP-bound capacity at its vendors' points of interconnection with Comcast.  Moreover, these costs are incremental and specific to the particular point of exchange between Netflix's Internet transit vendor and the ISP.  Florance Declaration at ¶ 46. 

When its traffic was carried on third party CDN networks, Netflix was aware of the costs being incurred on its behalf, but "in the short term Netflix was insulated from a sudden price increase." Florance Declaration at ¶ 39.  While Netflix was using CDNs, its performance over cable systems seemed uniformly better than even on the most advanced telco systems.  http://techblog.netflix.com/2011/01/netflix-performance-on-top-isp-networks.html

While its service was good using 3rd party CDNs, Netflix explains that, "[a]fter the Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3 CDN congestion episodes [2009-2010], Netflix began transitioning its traffic from CDNs (all of whom, we believed, were paying Comcast's new terminating access fee) to transit providers in our continued effort to avoid terminating access fees."  Florance Declaration at ¶ 40.  (dates in brackets added).  Thus, in February, 2012, Netflix signed an agreement with Cogent for Internet transit service.  Cogent began transitioning traffic to Netflix in August 2012.  Florance Declaration ¶ 41.

Based on customer complaints about service quality, Netflix's service deteriorated immediately upon switching to Cogent transit and progressively deteriorated over the next year. Florance, at ¶ 51.  However, beginning in October 2013, Netflix reports a very high level of customer dissatisfaction and cancellations, due to "Netflix's inability to do anything to change the situation."  Florance ¶ 52 (emphasis added).


 

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