What's causing video glitches at Apple, Netflix?

The Netflix Player by Roku and Apple TV both see marked performance loss in delivering video to customers. Are they connected?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read
The Netflix Player by Roku CNET Networks

Some Apple TV owners have complained for several weeks that it takes much longer now to download and playback high-definition movies.

"I started downloading an hour back and it says it will take two hours," wrote someone with the user name Reachg. "It's already 25 percent downloaded but it's not letting me play. In the past I was able to play the movie in 10 minutes max...seems something is happening."

The complaints at Apple's forums first appeared on November 14. That was the day after Roku, maker of the Netflix Player, notified customers it had received complaints from some device owners about a marked drop-off in quality of their streaming video. The Netflix Player and Apple TV are set-top boxes that enable owners to watch Web video on TV sets.

What we have here are two set-top boxes that almost simultaneously experience dramatically reduced streaming quality in the case of the Netflix Player, and longer download times in the case of Apple TV. Coincidence?

It's possible but it's worth digging a little to see whether the two cases are connected. A Roku executive told me on Monday that the problems with the company's box occurred at about the same time Netflix was making changes to its content distribution network (CDN).

Steve Swasey, Netflix spokesman declined to comment, citing the company's policy of not discussing vendors. (Apple also declined to comment.) But sources close to Netflix said the Web's top movie-rental service uses multiple CDN companies, including Akamai and Limelight Networks.

Akamai also delivers much of Apple's video content for iTunes. Jeff Young, an Akamai spokesman, said the company's isn't to blame, at least for Netflix's problems. He acknowledged that Akamai performs some services for Netflix, but they don't include anything having to do with the company's streaming video service. Netflix's streaming service is now offered on multiple devices, including Microsoft's Xbox 360.

Young said Akamai executives had not been informed about any problems at Apple TV and were looking into the problem.

I was told by an industry source that it's easy to blame Akamai and CDNs for these kind of problems, but often the glitches are the result of a company's own servers or other back-end infrastructure. The one thing that's crystal clear is none of the companies are providing customers with much information and are very tight-lipped about what they know.

On Roku's message board, several Netflix customers ask why the company hasn't notified them that there's a problem.