Will Netflix choke the internet?

By luring consumers toward streaming video, Netflix risks slowing the internet to a crawl. Can internet providers speed it up — and at what cost?

During prime time TV watching hours, Netflix streaming movies and TV shows reportedly account for one-fifth of the internet bandwidth.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Americans are increasingly using their computers not to work or browse the internet, but to watch streaming TV and movies — and that trend is about grow. Netflix has changed its pricing scheme to encourage more customers to watch movies online, and Microsoft is reportedly making a deal for XBox Live customers to stream TV programs over the internet to their televisions. But all that streaming video comes at a price: Bandwidth. Can the internet's infrastructure handle the new data demands, or will too much traffic overwhelm it?

Everything should be fine, but it might cost you: "Keeping the internet ahead of the video curve is surely manageable," say Robert Hahn and Peter Passell at Forbes, but we'll likely see "growing pains" in the form of extra charges for bandwidth usage and premium programming.

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It's already costing more: Just this week, cable provider Comcast demanded that one of Netflix's key online delivery partners pay more money for its streaming video service, says David Dayen at Firedoglake. Unless we reform our net neutrality rules, big cable companies will be able to hold our Netflix subscriptions hostage.

"Comcast shaking down Netflix for streaming fees, violating principle of net neutrality"

Most price-hikes, though, will be on the local, not national level: The "backbone of the internet" is unlikely to reach gridlock anytime soon, says Scott Canon at the Kansas City Star. But if all your neighbors sign up for Netflix, the "last mile of the internet" — that is, the local lines that cater to "far narrower lanes of traffic" — could easily become clogged. Expect higher rates from your internet service provider to "pay for improvements on that last mile."

"Will more streaming video overwhelm internet?"

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