'House of Cards' May Fuel Net Neutrality Debate

Demand for Netflix may influence Comcast deal review, Telecom Act rewrite.

Actor Kevin Spacey arrives at the special screening of Netflix's 'House of Cards' Season 2 at the Directors Guild of America on Feb. 13, 2014, in Los Angeles.

A negotiation between your Internet service provider and the companies that relay Netflix traffic may be the culprit of your slow Internet speed during your binge-watch of the latest "House of Cards" season during Valentine's Day weekend. 

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Netflix will get very busy this weekend when the latest season of “House of Cards” premieres online, and if demand for the 13 episodes slows downloads to a halt, lawmakers and lobbyist fans of the show may question companies like Verizon and Comcast about their networks and possible disputes with Netflix.

People are huddling indoors with their partners even more than they would on Valentine’s Day because of the frigid Winter Storm Pax, and Monday is a federal holiday, so watching a marathon of the “House of Cards” season will be a popular pastime.

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This weekend could be a perfect storm for slow downloads, but one explanation for lagging speeds could be that your Internet service provider is trying to negotiate a deal with the companies who relay Netflix traffic. There are two kinds of pain in this situation, as Beltway insider Frank Underwood might say. Providers either want more money from companies because Netflix is sending too much traffic and they want help covering the cost, or providers are violating the spirit of net neutrality by seeking extra profit, says Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge consumer advocacy group.

Netflix works with content delivery networks to package its data and send it to users. These delivery networks can make a deal to directly connect with ISPs in a process called peering. If your provider has such a deal you should have no trouble downloading “House of Cards” this weekend.

The trouble is that there is not enough transparency on such peering deals and ISP network activity to determine whether heavy traffic is the motivation for higher fees, Siy says.

“If companies would report more of what is happening with their networks and what congestion is happening, where you could see whether they have to deal with more traffic coming from a provider or if they are using it as a pretext to discriminate against certain traffic,” Siy says.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in January predicted demand for convenient access will prevent Internet service providers from charging higher rates for digital video services in violation of the net neutrality principle that all traffic should be treated equally.

Netflix publishes monthly reports of which Internet service providers are the fastest way to connect to their streaming video. In January Comcast ranked 14th and Verizon ranked 17th for Netflix download speeds, with Google Fiber ranking first. 

Streaming video use might be slowing Internet speeds as its popularity booms compared with traditional TV. According to 2012 data from the Federal Communications Commission Internet traffic slowed in the evenings when people were at home in front of the tube. Netflix generates 31.6 percent of traffic heading to users screens during that prime time in North America, according to a 2013 report from networking equipment company Sandvine. That indicates some ISPs without a peering agreement might take longer to download “House of Cards” than others.

Peering deals were not covered by the FCC’s Open Internet rules that a federal appeals court struck down in January, which were intended to uphold net neutrality. Peering has been an informal process between ISPs and delivery network middlemen to ensure fast downloads, but as the Internet grows companies are starting to negotiate new deals for those arrangements, Siy explains.

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Growing demand for streaming video traffic will likely make peering deals part of the debate in Congress on a planned rewrite of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the FCC its authority, and on the review of Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, Siy predicts. Comcast’s purchase of Time Warner Cable would give the resulting company vast ownership of broadband networks and the ability to negotiate prices with customers and businesses with less need to compete.

“Whether or not that means peering is going to be a rate regulated system or that it will just ensure no outages is going to be up for debate,” Siy says. “As you see more consolidation in the industry it becomes more if an issue.”