The U.S. Is (Just About) the World’s Worst Place to Watch ‘House of Cards’

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National Journal
Laura Ryan and Alex Brown
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Laura Ryan Alex Brown
Feb. 13, 2014, midnight

Sorry, House of Cards fans — Amer­ica is just about the worst place on Earth to catch the much-an­ti­cip­ated second sea­son of the Net­flix hit.

That’s be­cause U.S. Net­flix view­ers will, on av­er­age, watch it at slower stream­ing speeds than just about any­where else.

A year ago, the U.S. was rather middle-of-the-pack when it came to av­er­age Net­flix stream­ing speed. But while most oth­er coun­tries have boos­ted their speed, the U.S. av­er­age dropped nearly 10 per­cent over the last year.

And as of last month, the av­er­age U.S. Net­flix speed bested only that of Mex­ico — and just barely — and of Ar­gen­tina, where Net­flix just ar­rived last month.

Much of the U.S.’s dropoff can be at­trib­uted to two of its biggest In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders. Com­cast and Ve­r­i­zon cus­tom­ers have seen their Net­flix speed drop by around 10 to 25 per­cent in the past year.

Ve­r­i­zon FiOS had the smal­lest speed drop, but still fell from No. 2 to No. 7 among U.S. pro­viders since Novem­ber of 2012. Com­cast plummeted nearly 25 per­cent, and Ve­r­i­zon DSL — the slow­est-stream­ing ISP in the world — also fell in ex­cess of 25 per­cent.

In light of the re­cent court de­cision over­turn­ing net-neut­ral­ity rules, some may look askance at this slow­down be­cause the de­cision cleared the way for pro­viders to charge high-band­width web­sites more — or slow traffic to those same sites. (Stephanie Stamm)

But Ve­r­i­zon’s and Com­cast’s speeds began slow­ing down no­tice­ably months be­fore the D.C. Cir­cuit Court’s de­cision. Net­flix CEO Reed Hast­ings re­portedly does not be­lieve the lag­gard speeds are the res­ult of any mis­chief on Ve­r­i­zon’s part, and isn’t overly con­cerned that Ve­r­i­zon will do so in the fu­ture.

In­stead, de­mand is the likely cul­prit. Net­flix makes up an out­size share of In­ter­net traffic. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study, the band­width glut­ton ac­counts for al­most 30 per­cent of traffic at peak hours.

This trend isn’t likely to change any­time soon as sub­scrip­tions for the video-stream­ing ser­vice con­tin­ue to roll in. Net­flix ad­ded 2.3 mil­lion sub­scribers in its fourth quarter, and many people at­trib­ute this growth to its ori­gin­al pro­grams, like House of Cards.

As a quick fix, Net­flix has been en­cour­aging In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders to use Open Con­nect, a pro­gram that im­proves stream­ing qual­ity by al­low­ing ISP’s to pre-down­load Net­flix’s most pop­u­lar pro­grams in ad­vance of on­line TV’s rush hour. It doesn’t hurt that that saves Net­flix a pretty penny. Ma­jor ISPs like Ve­r­i­zon and Com­cast, however, have not signed up for Open Con­nect.

So where’s the best place to watch House of Cards? On av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to Net­flix, it’s the Neth­er­lands, which has only offered the stream­ing ser­vice for four-plus months.

There’s some solace to be had for U.S. view­ers, al­beit very few of them. Those lucky enough to have ac­cess to Google Fiber — the tech gi­ant’s ul­tra­fast In­ter­net ser­vice that’s de­ployed in only a few U.S. mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies — en­joy the highest-speed Net­flix view­ing in the world.

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