There’s always been a healthy debate on Wall Street over the long-term viability of Netflix, but on one factor there’s clear consensus: There is no more important metric than the streaming service’s subscriber count. Paying off its massive multibillion-dollar content costs requires growing the sub base Netflix has amassed across 50 countries.
Which makes the survey GlobalWebIndex presented this week so fascinating, and if accurate, important.
The research firm reported 54 million people worldwide could be accessing Netflix on a monthly basis via virtual private networks, which allow users to subscribe to a service even if it isn’t available in their own country.
Netflix, which declined comment on the GWI study, has long maintained its adherence to industry-standard methods on combating VPN usage, but it’s hardly airtight. That’s been a sore spot with Hollywood studios that are seeing their ability to license content on a region-by-region basis thwarted.
The 54 million is an eye-popping number because Netflix only has 53 million actual subscribers; the differential is chalked up by GWI to the widespread practice of sharing passwords to watch.
There’s three key takeaways from this finding, and it’s crucial to understand the latter two just as much as the first.
The first takeaway is so impressive that it risks obscuring the second: There are 30 million users accessing Netflix in countries where the service is not available, approximately 20 million of them through China alone.
That means there’s a potentially massive audience awaiting Netflix in regions where the streaming service has yet to be offered. That’s incredible validation for a company’s growth prospects (particularly a data-minded company like Netflix, which has gone so far as to analyze global piracy trends to inform its content licensing strategy).
But what may be even more interesting than China is who else shows up among the countries with the highest percentages of VPN users sampling Netflix, per GWI’s survey. The top five — Canada, Mexico, Brazil, U.K. and Ireland — are all countries where Netflix already offers its service.
That may seem a little counterintuitive; why would subscribers in these markets go out of market for their Netflix? They are presumably snubbing their local offerings in favor of the U.S. version of Netflix, which has a more robust content library than its overseas counterparts.
Here’s where the two other takeaways come in. Netflix is swinging a double-edged sword: The VPN technology that is priming the pump for its entry into new markets is also enabling users to bypass the overseas versions of Netflix, where subscriber growth is more likely to be achieved than through the domestic one.
How much bigger would the current international footprint of Netflix — 16 million total — be if would-be subscribers weren’t hooked on the U.S. version?
But the last takeaway takes Netflix’s Catch-22 into something like a Catch-44 situation. Netflix clearly needs to do everything it can to accelerate the growth of its international programming vaults to match its U.S. version. But should that ever occur, it could create another problem: If GWI’s numbers are remotely accurate, Netflix risks siphoning from a core U.S. sub base that may already be somewhat inflated by international usage.
The GWI numbers come at an inopportune time for Netflix, which just came off a quarter of global sub growth just shy of 1 million — less than a year prior and the company’s own projections, which sent its stock tumbling in October.
Its next quarterly report in January will be seen as a crucial indicator of the vitality of Netflix’s sub growth. After languishing below the radar in 2014, VPN could emerge as a sleeper issue for the company in the near future.