What’s Going on with Netflix Streaming Performance?
I noticed about 3 weeks ago my streaming video performance from Netflix has become unbearably slow. I’m on a 7 mbps Qwest DSL line in Tucson, AZ and my previous experience with Netflix “Watch Instantly” service had generally been excellent, almost never showing the buffering screen for a movie on either my PC or Xbox 360 and playing at the highest quality.
On the Xbox 360 for the last few weeks I can get playback to start quickly but everything I’ve tried to watch will stop 10 seconds into the playback and “adjust the quality” for about 5 mins, before resuming playback in the absolutely lowest quality setting — the quality approximately looks like a 320×200 resolution image is being upscaled on my 65″ TV — it’s so muddy every scene almost looks like it’s shot with a fuzzy “Dream” filter or something.
The odd part is that if I stop the playback on the Xbox 360, go to my computer and try and play the same media, I get presented with a “Your connection is not fast enough to start playback immediately…” notice and usually a wait time of 1hr or more. The overall slow down combined with the huge discrepency between the two experiences (Netflix-enabled device and my PC) made me decide to start Googling and see if I could figure out what was going on — I smelled shenanigans…
Detecting if Netflix is Throttling Streaming Video
I immediately ran into this post from another person who has a Qwest DSL line and piss-poor performance from Netflix and their streaming service. The original poster mentions:
I have been on the phone with netflix tech support only to be told they are aware there is a problem and their engineering department in California is looking into it. The problem is some people like myself who have high speed dsl (avg 1.5 mbs) find out their download speed from netflix is about 60% slower for some reason.
This post was from February 12, a month ago; so whatever the Netflix “engineers” have been doing, isn’t working. One of the most interesting bits of information is the tip the poster gives on accessing the secret diagnostic menu on the Netflix streaming player by holding the SHIFT key and Right-clicking to bring it up.
From there you can select:
- Status window
- Media info MessageBox
- Show log info
Bringing up the Status window I noticed my download performance was a far cry from my 7 mbps speed, but rather a measly 0.48 mbps, about 1/14th the speed of my line:
I decided to pop open the “Show log file” screen to see if I could get more information about where my video stream was coming from to help determine if it was my connection (and my fault) or Netflix’s problem.
After opening the log file, 26 lines down I found the line:
So I did a tracert from my PC to the base llnwd.net URL to see what came up, here’s what I got:
Tracing route to netflix-699.vo.llnwd.net [220.127.116.11] over a maximum of 30 hops: 1 1 ms 1 ms <1 ms home [192.168.1.1] 2 36 ms 34 ms 33 ms tcsn-dsl-gw13-205.tcsn.qwest.net [SNIP] 3 35 ms 33 ms 35 ms tcsn-agw1.inet.qwest.net [SNIP] 4 33 ms 35 ms 33 ms tcs-core-01.inet.qwest.net [SNIP] 5 * 47 ms 47 ms lap-brdr-03.inet.qwest.net [18.104.22.168] 6 45 ms 47 ms 45 ms 22.214.171.124 7 49 ms 51 ms 49 ms 126.96.36.199 8 48 ms 51 ms 48 ms ve6.fr3.lax.llnw.net [188.8.131.52] 9 46 ms 66 ms 45 ms cdn-68-142-79-69.lax.llnw.net [184.108.40.206] Trace complete.
With an average of a 50ms response time, I’m going to go ahead and say my 7 mbps Qwest DSL service is working as advertised, and there is something fishy going on with the Netflix service.
I then copy-pasted the URL from above into my browser and decided to literally try and download the WMV, surprisingly enough it started to download, at exactly the same speed I was seeing from the player:
My first thought was “maybe Netflix is throttling per-thread” like a lot of download sites do, so I popped open the Firefox “Download Them All” addon and re-started the download. This time, with 4 concurrent threads, I got 306 KB/sec, almost 6x the performance (roughly 2.5 mbps):
I figured I’d bump the threads up to 10 and see how far we get here, apparently Netflix isn’t running out of bandwidth, it’s just throttling me to hell and back.
After turning Download Them All up to the maximum of 10 threads and relaunching the download, I saw my speed spike over 700 KB/sec (roughly 5.6 mbps):
Now we have confirmed that Netflix is throttling instant streaming PC-users to a rediculous 50 or 60 KB/sec cap… I was about to make the qualification of “at peak times” but after seeing my ability to easily increase my download speed from the Netflix streaming server by a factor of 14, I have to imagine the servers have quite a bit of room to grow at the moment and could offer me better performance than this.
To further clarify, I think throttling is likely a valid strategy for Netflix to employee to stop servers from maxing out and crashing — the problem here is the 50-60 KB/sec cap that produces unusable results with a “Watch Instantly” service — you could easily drive down the street to a video store, take your time choosing, and have it back in your house before your video were done buffering with the Netflix Watch Instantly service — and view it at a higher resolution as well. This is the core of the problem, Netflix is throttling PC viewers (And likely others) so aggressively they aren’t delivering the service they advertise. And when we work around this trottle manually (with DTA) we see that the servers scale bandwidth (and potentially video streaming performance) without a problem — so what’s going on here?
OK, Netflix is Throttling Streaming, but Why?
Netflix already has a reputation for silently throttling their customers, but what would cause them to throttle performance so hard that the service is basically unusable for any customers that are either watching “too much” instantly streaming video from the Netflix service (as determined by Netflix of course) or just trying to watching movies at times of very heavy server loads?
My guess is that Netflix didn’t have the infrastructure to support the rollout of the Xbox 360 Netflix streaming dashboard update that went out a few months ago. I’d also further a guess that due to contractual obligations with Microsoft, Netflix had to guarantee a certain level of service to the Xbox 360 users above and beyond what the PC-streaming viewers got, making the Xbox 360 a prioritized device when it came to throttling instant video streaming requests from one of the Netflix servers.
I would also further a guess that we won’t see this situation fixed for users of the Netflix “Watch Instantly” service until Q4 this year as Netflix tries to find the balance between spending themselves into bankrupcy and signing additional device deals with Sony (for the PS3), TiVo and possible some of the cable providers which will all require basic QoS conditions for those customers.
I would predict that my 2010, if Netflix signs 1 or 2 more significant partnerships, Friday and Saturday nights PC-based users of the streaming video service will barely be able to watch something without an hour of buffering at the lowest level.
… for those that like taking thoughts to the logical extreme — I could also see Netflix trying to degrade the PC-based streaming experience to drive people towards more “official” Netflix-enabled devices, like the Xbox 360, Roku box, hybrid Blu-ray media players and I’m sure 10 more devices that will hit the market this year.
You know the real shit of it all? I can absolutely see how this is probably better for Netflix’s bottom line, both in the sense that it improves relationships with exclusive contractee’s (Microsoft, Samsung, etc.) and drives consumers to look around for alternative solutions to their streaming problems which are very clearly outlined on the Watch Instantly web page in your browser.
Update #1: I’m going to go ahead and assume that this post got passed around Netflix HQ (as one of their engineers already posted to the story with a random suggestion of upgrading to the much-maligned Silverlight-based player) and I’m now feeling the wrath of their angry fingers:
Incase the image doesn’t display or you aren’t clear on what I’m getting at, during the original authoring of this article, my buffer time for media on my PC was around 1.5hrs. Now when I try and play something on my PC (2 days after this was written) my buffering time just hangs at 6hrs and 59 mins… that’s right, 7 hours of buffering time.
</sarcasm>That’s definitely a technical glitch and not Netflix leveling the hammer of streaming-justice against me as retribution for the article… god knows they are above that</sarcasm>
My previous run-in with Netflix “customer service” was when I had the 5-at-a-time account, and had what I think was Transporter 2 (Blu-ray) sitting at the top of my queue for 7 weeks. I got everything else in my queue as it bubbled to the top, but Transporter 2 stayed right at the top with “Long Wait”. I finally lost it and sent an admitedly rude (and typical internet-venting) email to the Customer Service team at Netflix. 3hrs later the wait had changed to “Unknown” or some other dubious hint at Netflix giving me the “Fuck you guy, go climb up a tree and die”.
After I cooled down (1 day later) I sent an appology… guess what? Just guess… yea… you know where this is going… I got a shipment notification for the movie a few hours later and it was on it’s way to my house.
Naturally Netflix claimed that the Customer Service reps have no access to individual customers Queues or the abilities to change them. I’ll go out on a limb here and declare shenanigans all over this like a warm pile of turtle-shit.
This company is an odd duck… it delivers an awesome service that would be so easy to sing the praises of if they just delivered it as advertised. But they don’t… and they’ll zing you if you call them on it, so you get left with this meloncholy feeling of trying to decide if you like their service or not, cause you know your aren’t getting the service they advertise… but you sorta-kind are.
If you don’t agree, cut your subscription back to “2-at-a-time unlimited” and try and rent-and-return 1 movie every other day, $1 says after you get to 6 rentals for a month, you’ll start seeing major lag in the turn around time on your movies.
Update #2: From the screenshot above where you see the 7hr buffer time now that I’m getting on my PC from Netflix for anything streaming, the odd part is that when I bring the debug menu back up and show the status window, it’s still capped at the same 50 KB/sec or so.
To clarify, the day I wrote this article, my transfer was capped at 50 KB/sec, and buffer time was 1-2hrs as reported by the player.
Now 2 days after this story went up, my transfer speed is still 50 KB/sec, but now my buffer time is 7hrs… odd.
Update #3: Stephen Stockard wrote in with a workaround for folks having this issue and it was essentially to use a proxy service to hide his throttled IP address from Netflix, more specifically:
I had the same problem as you did with Netflix throttling my streaming. It is very odd though only on my computers, which are both connected to a high speed network, the speed was throttled. When I signed in on my brother’s computer at home the movies were instant, and the same when my fiancé watched movies from her home.
I concluded that it was my IP address that Netflix was targeting.
To solve the problem I downloaded a proxy that would hide my IP address and use another while enabled. I tried again and while enabled the proxy allowed full streaming speed back at the high quality it was originally. Personally I use GoTrusted Secure Tunnel, though you might not want to pay an extra $5 something to stream from Netflix, but I have found the service well worth it. If you can find a free program that works too, but that is the solution I got.