Can Netflix OpenConnect succeed without the biggest ISPs?

Will the Netflix CDN be able to fit in the world of ISP/Content provider mergers and customer consolidation?

It’s been a year since I first told you about Netflix OpenConnect and their drive to get the appliance into the datacenters of ISPs throughout their coverage area. With a goal of caching content at a huge number of locations so that future failures of the backend host (Amazon AWS) would be minimized, Netflix hoped that by getting the cached content at ISP POPs and allowing the OpenConnect boxes to communicate without requiring the Amazon backend would not only limit the damage of potential backend failure, but that they would also be able to reduce their overall bandwidth demand on the public Internet.

A year later and Netflix has distributed the OpenConnect appliance to hundreds of ISPs and there has been only a single major hiccough in data delivery when Amazon once again failed them over the Christmas holiday in 2012. But the success of the OpenConnect appliance program has been limited by one major factor; the largest ISPs in the country aren’t interested in playing ball.

A report in the Wall Street Journal claimed that big guns Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon were not willing at this time to give Netflix space in their datacenters, expressing concern that doing so for Netflix would allow other content providers, such as Amazon, to demand the same access. And while there is some validity to that argument, it should also be noted that at least three of those ISPs are also in the business of content providing, and improving the performance of Netflix is certainly not in their interest.

While there is always the claim that the customer has the option to switch to a provider that is more open, the reality is that in many regions those four big players are the only choice for high-performance ISP services, so switching from one to the other changes nothing in terms of accessing content delivery networks other than that provided by the ISP. And as the Comcast – NBC merger shows, those ISPs are also interested in getting into the content producing business, further minimizing their interest in improving the service Netflix provides to their customers.

Only time will tell what direction this issue is going to go, but it’s a reasonable bet that someone will be asking the government to get involved.