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Netflix Cops to Capping Mobile Video Quality

Netflix is vocal critic of Internet providers and carriers that don’t treat all traffic the same, even as it limits quality of its own mobile streams

Netflix limits the quality of its video when customers are streaming over a mobile network, the company said late Thursday, after years of criticizing connectivity providers who sought their own ways to manage unwieldy traffic.

In a blog post, Netflix said it caps how quickly data moves over mobile networks at 600 kilobits per second globally. That means customers couldn’t watch a higher-quality video even if they wanted to.

Its admission of the practice, which wasn’t previously disclosed, comes years after Netflix began vocally advocating “strong Net Neutrality,” the notion that Internet providers should deliver all data without preference or discrimination. The company has lashed out at providers like Comcast for exploring strategies like fast and slow “lanes” for different kinds of traffic on broadband networks.

Net neutrality principles apply to service providers, not content companies like Netflix. The company, the world’s No. 1 subscription streaming video provider, already has features in place that automatically adjust the bitrate of its streams to best suit the device and network handling them. But those features are disclosed and allow for manual adjustments, unlike the across-the-board mobile quality cap.

But Netflix said its mobile limit may change in May, when it aims to roll out “data saver” features for mobile apps. The features will provide members with more control over data usage when streaming on mobile networks, allowing them to either stream more video under a smaller data plan, or increase their video quality if they have a higher data plan.

The company defended its quality limit as “striking a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers.” Some carriers, like the country’s biggest providers AT&T and Verizon, set limits on customers’ data and either charge fees when the user’s device gobbles up more data than that or automatically degrades the quality so data-heavy activities, like streaming video, don’t keep burdening their networks.

“Our research and testing indicates that many members worry about exceeding their mobile data cap, and don’t need the same resolution on their mobile phone as on a large screen TV to enjoy shows and movies,” the company said.

Netflix’s mobile data cap was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.