When disagreements play out in the general media like this, the details that matter get lost in competing definitions. Earlier this week social media reports revealed that Netflix has started showing its users an error message blaming slower streaming on Verizon's 'crowded' network. Verizon wasted no time in firing back with a legal threat.
Verizon says the accusation is 'self-serving, deceptive, inaccurate and an unfair business practice' and that its network is not crowded. But the details of what 'network' means here are being obfuscated by both sides. Networks as a whole don't get congested, interconnection points and other network nodes do. We like to talk about the internet in terms of highways, but the photons don't actually slow down in between hops like you see on the New Jersey Turnpike during rush hour.
Netflix is saying that congestion at the point of interconnection means a congested network. Verizon's position essentially is that their network is a separate entity from the entry points, and that finding the proper entry point is the other side's responsibility. But we don't actually know for certain what kind of interconnection points are at issue when these warning messages get displayed to Netflix users.
But we can make an educated guess based on all that has been happening. It's probably congestion with a peer, and since Netflix has been using Cogent for such transit in many cases, that would be a pretty good guess -- though it could be Level 3 or others just as well. In peering, each side owns its side of the infrastructure and both sides have to cooperate to keep the capacity ahead of demand. So something Verizon owns is crowded and that something is connected to the rest of its network. Level 3's recent blogs make it clear they see the last mile operators as the roadblock, and Cogent even went on record in March offering to pay for such upgrades to keep the data flowing. The argument here is that the peering point is congested because Verizon wants it congested, and it's not a new one.
But it's not Verizon's whole network that is congested, and the various last mile operators' point has been that Netflix could be using other points of ingress -- another transit provider or a CDN that uses paid peering or even the paid peering Netflix is already supposedly putting in place with Verizon. That's entirely true.
Yet, the real issue at hand here is why the congested point of interconnection has not been upgraded. If Verizon is dragging its feet on a peering upgrade and then pointing to alternatives as the reason the congestion is not its fault, then they are in fact using pressure to force the choice of ingress. And that is why Netflix is pissed off enough to name names regarding the cause of slower streaming.
Basically, Verizon is saying its network can't be blamed for its interconnections and that Netflix should choose its transit suppliers more carefully to align with Verizon's interconnection upgrade choices. Netflix is saying that when Verizon lets its interconnection points get congested, it bears enough blame to get called out for slower service. Both sides want the other to get blamed by the public for it, because in the end the public is who holds the trump card here.
Who is right? These days it depends on whose side you are on. But either way it's further proof that you can't separate the world of peering and transit from the issue of network neutrality by making convenient definitions and arbitrary dividing lines, no matter how much easier that would make things.