Originally published at DigitalSociety.

A few days ago Owen Good over at Kotaku published a story called Does “Net Neutrality” Mean a Golden Highway Paved By Gamers? in which he discusses the Google-Verizon deal.  He was particularly interested in the 5th point listed at Google’s Public Policy Blog which he termed a “loop hole” for video gaming.

Here’s a quote of the 5th point from Google’s Public Policy Blog:

Fifth, we want the broadband infrastructure to be a platform for innovation. Therefore, our proposal would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services (such as Verizon’s FIOS TV) offered today. This means that broadband providers can work with other players to develop new services. It is too soon to predict how these new services will develop, but examples might include health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options. Our proposal also includes safeguards to ensure that such online services must be distinguishable from traditional broadband Internet access services and are not designed to circumvent the rules. The FCC would also monitor the development of these services to make sure they don’t interfere with the continued development of Internet access services.

This caused some concern for Good.  His main fear is the possibility of what he termed a “super-gold pipeline,” or a “private Internet.”  He has two concerns that I want to address here.

  1. He feels that content providers will eventually be attracted to such a thing and that the cost will be passed on to the customer.
  2. He believes that online gaming represents enormous bandwidth and a “‘private Internet’ would certainly see a growth market in gaming.”

#1, Mr. Good, you can be assured that there is no eventually about it in this conversation.  And it still surprises me to this day that so few gaming journalists understand Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and have never heard of Limelight Networks.

I’ll let George Ou do me the favor of explaining CDN’s in detail, so check out page 17 of his paper Managing Broadband Networks.  But essentially what needs to be pointed out is that content providers have been using a “private Internet” for years.  CDN’s like Limelight Networks are designed to have a direct connection to your ISP on their own private fiber network.

What this means is that when you are connecting to Microsoft for Xbox Live and you decide to download a game, the game is delivered straight to your ISP’s network via private fiber from Limelight.  The benefit of this is that the game you are downloading does not have to travel over the “public Internet” i.e. It is not transferred over multiple networks and get in lots of first-come-first-serve queue lines at various router hops.

Good is concerned that this will increase costs for gamers.  Well yes and no. Microsoft charges you $50/year for service.  What do you think this is going toward?  Microsoft doesn’t host game servers.  All gaming is hosted on a host Xbox and the other gamers within the same game environment are connected to that host Xbox as clients.  So Microsoft’s costs are for their general network used to connect gamers within the Xbox Live environment, NOT the gaming environment.  Additionally they provide the infrastructure that shows you their ads, and displays available downloadable content.  Once that content is selected for purchase then it is actually being delivered via the CDN, Limelight Networks.  So in this case part of your yearly or monthly fee for Xbox Live is going to Microsoft to pay Limelight.

The Playstation Network doesn’t charge you a monthly/yearly fee, and neither do PC operations like Valve’s STEAM service to download PC games.  But you can guarantee that part of the purchase cost of hardware and software is going to pay Limelight for their “private Internet” connection to your ISP.  Ever wonder why digital copies of games are the exact same price as the hard copy?  That cost that you are not paying for a physical product has to go toward Limelights services.

#2, Yes and no.  Online gaming only represents “enormous bandwidth” when you are talking about downloading actual games.  The bandwidth needed by actual gaming is practically non-existent, as George, Michael Turk, and I have talked about ad nauseam:

A Simple Misunderstanding About Online Gaming and Broadband – George Ou

“Gamers for Lag” Weighs In On Net Neutrality – Michael Turk

Game Developers Demand Regulations to Ban Premium Peering – George Ou

Is ECA Staking Out Anti-Gamer Positions On Purpose? – Michael Turk

Are Video Game Journalists Pitching A One Sided Story? - Nick R Brown

So since it is established that the only heavy bandwidth concern is when downloading large games then what do we have to look at?

  1. Whether or not the cost is passed on to the consumer.
  2. Whether or not your personal connection to the Internet can handle the bandwidth cost.

The answer to #1 is most likely in every case going to be, “Yes”.  However, that does not mean that a consumer would see an increase in costs beyond what they have already seen.  Bare in mind that we have already established that content providers are already using specialized private Internet connections to deliver you games, movies, music, etc.  So whatever cost we as gamers are paying now is already being used for that specialized and prioritized delivery service.

As far as an individual ISP creating a gaming fast lane through some type of Quality of Service provision it would be unlikely to substantially raise costs for the gaming consumer.  This is because it would be much easier to raise the cost of service across the board by a dollar and provide gamers a lag free gaming experience rather than raise the cost just for gamers by say ten dollars and annoy a specific customer base.

When I asked George his opinion on the matter, these were his thoughts,

I would say that costs are *already* being passed on, always have and always will.  The only question is how is it passed onto the gamer and which method is the most efficient.  The costs can be paid once at higher volume discounts like Blizzard paying Teliasonera for a network service with superior QoS and packet priority.  We can approximate the cost by assuming that a WOW gamer plays 40 hours a week and we know that online gaming requires an average of 100 Kbps.  That works out to a continuous average of 22 Kbps or 0.022 Mbps.  Normal transit bandwidth costs somewhere on the order of $3 to $10 per month per Mbps so if we assume that enhanced QoS bandwidth costs an additional $10/Mbps/month, a 40 hour/week gamer would cost Blizzard an additional 22 cents per month.

If Net Neutrality (as proposed by the FCC and Net Neutrality proponents) succeeds in outlawing the sale of QoS to application/gaming companies and only allows the sale of QoS to end-users, I could easily envision ISPs offering users a $5/month service for VoIP and gaming prioritization.  The problem is that very few users would actually sign onto the service because end-users are very price/complexity sensitive.  Most gamers will simply have to endure higher latency and resort to the old yell-at-my-housemate trick to stop downloading that video.  The sad thing is that Net Neutrality proponents won’t even allow ISPs to sell prioritization to content providers with explicit end-user authorization because they don’t think consumers are smart enough to decide for themselves if they want a “neutral” (read crappy) Internet or not.

As for #2, this is always going to come down to the individual and what the individual can afford.  If you want a 32oz steak that costs $2 and you only have $1 then you can’t get as much steak as you wanted.  You just have to buy a smaller amount of steak.  That’s a life principle, not a bandwidth principle.  If you can afford an unlimited bandwidth plan (which most plans are) then download gaming content to your hearts content.  If you have some type of capped service that was a choice you made as a consumer, and sometimes that choice was in your best interest.  But if you can’t afford unlimited bandwidth then that is not the providers fault and a complaint cannot be issued that you deserve more bandwidth just because you desire more bandwidth.

In the end, the Google-Verizon statement on gaming is most likely a fair one.  Everything specifically mentioned, “health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options” (and I’m sure additional things in their actual working policy piece) are Internet applications that are time sensitive.

I believe that this is the key to the “loophole”. It is not being stated as an opportunity to gouge the consumer, but simply to leave a door open saying, “Look we [Google] are looking for equal treatment of Internet traffic, but we also recognize that there are certain applications and technologies that need prioritization for optimum performance and we are willing to leave the door open for Verizon and other ISP’s to develop and use those types of technologies.” And if that is the legitimate attitude, then it is a fair one, and Google should receive due praise for recognizing this and being willing to compromise for the good of current and future time sensitive applications.

p.s. A tip of the cap to Owen Good for his recognition that a solution from the private sector is more desirable that piling on more government regulation.

 

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