Netflix responds to controversy, gives mobile users control over streams

Under fire for quietly throttling video streams to customers watching on mobile devices, Netflix announced Thursday that it’s now giving them more control over the quality of the movies and TV shows they watch.

The new versions of the company’s Android and iOS apps now allow smartphone users to raise or lower the stream rate of the company’s videos when they’re sent over cellular networks. So, instead of being stuck with the video rate that Netflix chose, which is parsimonious with customers’ data but offers middling picture resolution, customers can choose to get higher-quality videos that gobble up more data.

“Our goal is to give you more control and greater choice in managing your data usage whether you’re on an unlimited mobile plan or one that’s more restrictive,” Eddy Wu, Netflix’s director of product innovation, said in a blog post.

In the new apps, which Netflix released Thursday, Netflix will retain the default stream rate setting that it used before, which uses 600 kilobits per second and allows users to watch about 3 hours of video for every gigabyte of data they consume. The new apps also continue to allow users to set them so that they won’t use any cellular data at all. But customers now have four other streaming options — low, medium, high quality and a setting for those with unlimited data plans.

The low-quality option allows users to watch about 4 hours of video per gigabyte. The medium- and high-quality settings allow users to watch 2 and 1 hour of video per gigabyte, respectively. Netflix did not offer an estimate of how much data would be consumed on the unlimited setting.

“We are always working on ways to improve picture quality while streaming more efficiently, so bitrates could change over time,” Wu said in his post. “As with all streaming, actual data usage can vary based on your device capabilities and network conditions.”

This spring, after T-Mobile accused Verizon and AT&T of throttling Netflix, the streaming video company itself acknowledged that it was the one limiting the quality of its streams to those two companies’ customers and had been for more than five years. Netflix said it had done so to protect customers on limited bandwidth mobile data plans from overage charges.

The company didn’t slow streams to T-Mobile or Sprint customers, because those companies have typically not charged overage fees or have continued to offer unlimited data plans. At the time of the controversy, Netflix said it would soon give all mobile customers a way of choosing the quality and data usage of their video streams.

Those opposed to net neutrality made political hay out of the Netflix throttling controversy. Two of the key principles of net neutrality are transparency about how data is being managed and a bar on throttling particular applications. Net neutrality opponents called Netflix, which had been one of the big proponents of the so-called open Internet rules, hypocritical for its actions.

But those charges rang hollow. While consumer groups were critical of Netflix for not being up-front with customers about what it was doing, it was clear the company didn’t violate either net neutrality principles or the letter of Open Internet rules that the Federal Communications Commission put in place last year.

Net neutrality has always been envisioned as a means to protect consumers and network users from network operators. As such, they restrict what broadband providers can do; they don’t cover the actions of companies that deliver apps or services over the network.

Photo: Netflix’s headquarters in Los Gatos, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

 

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