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Who pays for my Netflix 'West Wing' binge?

A screenshot of Netflix's new design.

Netflix has been slowing down. It keeps interrupting "The West Wing", which I have been binge watching for several weeks.

Slow Netflix?

The whole point of Netflix is that it's fast, and you can watch 6 episodes of "The West Wing", without having to move any major muscle groups. Truly, when I see that loading symbol and the "Ooops, something went wrong" message, I am ready to grab a pitchfork and a torch and MAKE SOMEONE PAY… or at least get really outraged from my couch. (And yes, I am watching "The West Wing" instead of "House of Cards", because... well... I'm still wearing boot cut jeans, if that tells you anything about my ability to be on trend.)

Reports are saying that Verizon and other Internet service providers are not giving Netflix the juice it needs to make my experience the seamless Sorkinian delight it should be. Verizon denies this, saying it treats all sites equally. What we do know is that Internet service providers want Netflix to pay up. Netflix requires a lot of data, and Verizon, which controls the pipes that bring you the Internet, wants it to pay extra. 

"The carriers are now saying that the burden should also be put on the Netflixes of the world, and the Hulus of the world, in order to help defray some of the costs," says Tim Bajarin, with Creative Strategies. "Especially if they have to expand their networks to handle more traffic."

As Internet use has skyrocketed and data-hungry video has taken off, there’s a cost-passing game of chicken going between websites and internet service providers.

"Companies need to figure out who is more important to whom," says Ken Wilbur, professor of marketing at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. "Once they have a clear idea about that, they can figure out who should be paying whom how much." 

Net neutrality would mean carriers like Verizon couldn’t charge Netflix more than any other website. But regulations guarding net neutrality haven’t been sticking.

"It's what many critics, myself included, have called the cablization of the Internet," says Aram Sinnreich , author of The Piracy Crusade and a professor of media at Rutgers University. He says without net neutrality, there’s no way a company like YouTube or Facebook or Netflix could get off the ground.

"Only the wealthiest companies, who already control the industry, will be able to provide a compelling consumer experience, and all the rival upstarts are going to come across as pixellated blocky interrupted video."

Today, the Federal Communications Commission said it would write new guidelines to safeguard net neutrality, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a way to enforce it.

So, when it comes to my "West Wing" binge, I might have to develop video buffering patience. Or start reading…

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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