Facing cap impact, Netflix lets customers manage their own bandwidth

Netflix is filling up broadband pipes, both wireline and wireless (CP: Sandvine survey reveals Netflix number-one bandwidth gobbler), and if it’s not a direct response it’s at least related: broadband carriers both wireline and wireless are now instituting data caps to ensure heavy streaming video (Netflix) users don’t overwhelm their pipes. Now, Netflix has quietly put in place an optional account settings feature that lets users better control how much bandwidth they consume.

netflixqualityUnder a link called “Manage Video Quality,” Netflix tells its users:

netflixgraphWe know that some of you have Internet data caps and we want to make it easier for you to manage how much data you use. We offer 3 video quality settings to help you manage your data usage. No matter what level you choose, your Netflix membership price will remain the same.

Those three levels are good quality (up to 0.3 GB per hour); better quality (up to 0.7 GB per hour); and best quality (up to 1 GB per hour, or up to 2.3 GB per hour for HD). By default, no level is chosen, and it’s not entirely clear what the default level is (though we’d assume it defaults to high performance).

Netflix isn’t driving users aggressively to these new settings, burying them on a page most users never visit — and for good reason. It gets and keeps subscribers by delivering a high quality streaming video service. Limiting bandwidth limits its service. Which is the reason that it also regularly publishes a high-profile graph rating the performance of various ISPs in delivering its service (click here to see the full graph; the graphic at the right is an excerpt). It’s a high-stakes game of bandwidth cat and mouse right now.

That said, Netflix is clearly making a nod to the reality that bandwidth isn’t free, especially on mobile networks. The next step? It could be cutting service providers into the pie by crafting QOS and SLA deals to give Netflix users (maybe next-generation “platinum” users) access to more bandwidth. We’re not there yet, but with its bandwidth self-management tools could be moving in that direction.

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