Aterlo Networks solves rural users' Netflix buffering problem

Usage caps and slow speeds mar the viewing experience for households outside the big cities



There’s a lot of talk about cord-cutting these days, but almost no mention of how the shift toward internet-delivered television might be affecting rural households.

Getting rid of cable or satellite TV in favour of Netflix and other streaming options is great for city dwellers who have access to the necessary high-speed, high-usage internet connections, but what about people with worse connections in small towns and the country-side?

In many cases, rural households don’t have the necessary speeds to stream high-definition video or they’re saddled with low monthly usage caps that don’t play well with the heavy bandwidth demands that HD content such as House of Cards have.

Waterloo, Ont.-based Aterlo Networks is trying to solve that problem. The four-person startup, made up of veterans from networking company Sandvine, has a clever solution called NightShift that automatically downloads Netflix videos at night while the user is sleeping.

The $99 (U.S.) NightShift starter package includes a home router and a USB drive. Once configured, the user starts playing the TV show or movie they want to view. The router then takes over and downloads a copy of the content over a period of hours. The viewer can then return the next day and watch the movie or episode without buffering interruptions.

The NightShift software also learns viewing patterns, so if a user is watching a show, the router will try to stay ahead by automatically downloading the next three episodes.

The system thus gets around speed limitations and, often, usage limits, since many internet service providers allow unlimited downloading at off-peak times overnight.

Content stored on the NightShift router is protected by digital rights management so it can’t be played on other sources – it has to go through the Netflix player. In that way, Aterlo is trying to work with the likes of Netflix and other video streaming services, rather than against them.

The company is effectively acting as an extension of a content delivery network (CDN), or the video caches that Netflix and others operate around their service areas to provide faster streaming.

“We believe we are a good thing for Netflix and other streaming video providers because we provide access to households that they couldn’t serve otherwise,” says co-founder Gerit Nagelhout. “Our vision is to become an official part of the CDN chain and become an extension into the home and therefore have contracts with the content providers.”

Netflix, for its part, isn’t saying much about Aterlo. “Yes, we’ve heard of them, but don’t have anything to share beyond that,” says spokesperson Marlee Tart.

Nagelhout says the market for NightShift, which costs $6.99 (U.S.) per month, is continually growing. About 160 million people worldwide have high-speed internet but can’t watch HD video. About 30 million of those are in the United States, with a similar proportion in Canada.

While faster speeds and bigger usage caps are likely to eventually migrate into smaller towns and rural areas, bandwidth demands show no signs of slowing down. Netflix, for one, requires five times the bandwidth for ultra high-definition 4K video than regular HD.

Aterlo announced a deal last week with Wireless Nation, an ISP in New Zealand, that will see the internet provider offer NightShift to its customers. The company is pursuing similar deals around the world, Nagelhout says.

“There are no losers with this.”