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Google to Hold ISPs' Feet to the Fire

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After net neutrality was delivered a blow, Google launches a service that ranks ISPs' ability to deliver HD video.

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If you heard a faint wail last week, that was the collective cry of millions of Internet users reacting to a federal appeals court decision that effectively stabbed net neutrality in the heart. The ruling denied the Federal Communication Commission's ability to dictate how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can manage traffic on their networks due to the fact that broadband providers aren't currently considered "common carriers" and aren't beholden to the inherent rules and regulations preventing bandwidth discrimination.

Many worry -- with good reason -- that this decision will grant ISPs free reign to boost or throttle online speeds to sites and services depending on whether they see them as competition. For example, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), which owns NBCUniversal, would love for customers to watch NBC programming live with all the lucrative ad money it provides rather than switch over to an ad-free Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) stream. So, theoretically, it can decrease the speeds to Netflix, YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG), or any other video streaming service to a buffer-filled crawl, forcing customers to give up and just stick with the archaic network broadcast.

Now, that is a worst-case scenario, one that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings even considers a long shot given its likelihood for government action and customer revolt. But again, these are Internet Service Providers we're talking about here, and their indomitable greed has pushed them to pull some pretty egregious stunts before. As such, Netflix is prepared to go thermonuclear on ISPs should they start getting sneaky with bandwidth.

And one way we might learn of a cable provider's fickle finger is by ol' Mountain View itself.

Google is launching a service which ranks the network performance of ISPs based on their ability to deliver HD video online. Using the 720p videos hosted on the company's YouTube site, the service -- known as Google's Video Quality Report -- determines how quickly and smoothly a provider can deliver the HD content. If successful, the ISP is given the esteemed label "YouTube HD Verified." If the video quality maxes out at standard definition or lower, then the provider is branded with a more inferior designation.

Google hopes the service will not only help users understand the quality of broadband they're receiving and gauge whether an ISP is worth their money, but also "persuade" providers to describe their services with more accurate numbers.

Shiva Rajaraman, director of product management at YouTube, explained the service in an interview with the Financial Post.

"The tool we created really has two goals," he said. "We wanted to give users a measure of performance that they can truly understand … the other side is we felt this would be beneficial for ISPs too, because now they can describe their service and the various product offerings and price points they might have to their customers in a way that they can truly understand: You can access YouTube in HD on my ISP, or not."

Getting ISPs to be accurate and forthcoming with their service quality would be an amazing accomplishment, albeit pretty lofty.

Currently, the quality report is only available in Canada. However, the local providers in the Great White North have already garnered impressive marks with many HD-verified ISPs in the region.

"On some level, we think Canada could be one of the first HD-verified countries out there," Rajaraman said. "So we wanted to start with a market where clearly people are doing it well, and we wanted to lead with the best."

Although the service's initial run in Canada seems to be successful, Rajaraman couldn't confirm whether the service would expand south of the border into America. But considering the absolutely dismal download speeds we do get, maybe we could wait a while before our pessimism is actually confirmed.

And when most of us are stuck with a single provider for our area, it's not like a bad quality report would do consumers much good anyway.

See also:

Netflix Wins on Net Neutrality

Google Glass Sparks Federal Investigation at Movie Theater

Facebook's News Feed Follies: Come Back, Lil Wayne!
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