Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) YouTube division has released its first ever Video Quality Report, rating the performance of Internet service providers on how well they are delivering online video in their service areas. It's a move similar to Netflix's (NASDAQ: NFLX) monthly ISP speed index, which ranks providers based on how well they deliver Netflix streams to their subscribers.
Unlike Netflix, which relies almost entirely on its own data to determine ISPs' average streaming rates, Google is using information supplied by cable operators, telcos and other broadband service providers across the country, amounting to thousands of ISPs and billions of YouTube streams.
"Individual and isolated measures like access speed or server capacity do not capture the real user experience," a Google post said in explaining the report's methodology. "An end to end, application-level performance measurement that includes all the influencers in the equation is the right approach to measure and quantify the true internet user experience."
The report delivers a customized chart based on a visitor's location that reports on the speeds of ISPs in their area. Users also have the option of selecting different locations. YouTube's report page allows users to select specific providers and get a graph chart of consumption rates by the hour, averaged over a 30-day period.
Services receive an "HD Verified" rating from YouTube if customers of those ISPs are able to stream YouTube videos in high definition (at least 720p), that also load rapidly, 90 percent of the time.
The number of HD Verified providers in major cities is sobering. In Boston, for example, four of seven ISPs received the classification: Verizon FiOS (NYSE: VZ), Norwood Light Broadband, RCN Corp. and USAi.net. Three other ISPs--AT&T (NYSE: T) (which doesn't offer U-verse in the area), Windstream and most damning, Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Xfinity service--received only a Standard Definition rating. Verizon DSL services and "other" Verizon services also landed squarely in the SD category.
In New York City, Verizon FiOS again topped the HD Verified list, followed by Cablevision's (NYSE: CVC) Optimum service and RCN Corp. AT&T (non-U-verse), Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Windstream and four smaller ISPs ranked as Standard Definition. Covad Communications and Xchange Telecom landed in the streaming cellar, rated as "Lower Definition" by YouTube.
And in Kansas City, Kan., where Google launched its own fiber service initiative, Google Fiber reigns alone in the HD Verified category. AT&T U-Verse, its closest competitor, lags in HD streams, averaging a little under 80 percent.
The purpose of these ratings isn't entirely clear, but one can infer that Google intends to use the rankings to convince ISPs to up their speed and quality game. Will the search engine giant also use it to bolster their own argument in the ongoing net neutrality debate, in the same way that Netflix is citing its speed rankings in filings to the FCC? That's not a far-fetched assumption.
Google's rankings also raise questions about how ISPs manage their bandwidth when it comes to large-scale demand from subscribers for services like Netflix or Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) Instant Video. For example, FiOS tops out its speed and quality rankings for YouTube videos, but the service is currently in the No. 11 spot on Netflix's April Speed Index--while Comcast has risen to the No. 3 spot. Granted, Netflix only averages the speeds of its own streamed content during primetime hours, but the YouTube data may serve to strengthen Netflix's contention that ISPs are forcing pay-for-play deals in order for its long-form content to better access their networks.
Screenshot of YouTube's video quality index for the Boston area. (Source: Google)
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