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“Gamers for Lag” Strike Again

Gaming blog Kotaku has a guest blog up today that argues net neutrality is great for gamers and they should all be greatly concerned the courts tossed the FCC’s attempt to enforce the rules in contradiction of its own classification. The article was penned by Michael Weinberg (a guy that gets paid to argue for net neutrality) and Andre Vrignaud (a guy that is carrying a heavy beef against Comcast because it bounced him for being a data hog).

The article is sort of the counterpoint to my post last week cheering the court’s decision.

What’s truly fascinating about their arguments are the logical gymnastics they go through to make them. And unfortunately for them, their whole post is belied by one simple sentence buried deep in their screed.

No one is going to pay to get into a fast lane if the slow lane is good enough for their needs.

By that, Weinberg and Vrignaud tried to imply that ISPs should be required to ensure that the slow lane is good enough, and prevent providers from creating a need for fast lanes.

The problem is that one sentence frames the flawed premise that is the basic tenet of net neutrality. By providing only mediocre Internet for all, you prevent better services for some. That sounds well and good until you realize, as gamers should, that they NEED better services. This isn’t a random, fleeting desire. This is an absolute necessity. You may recall from my piece that problems of latency and jitter are the gamer’s worst enemy.

The problem for gamers in particular is their susceptibility to the effects of jitter and latency. Every gamer understands the concept of lag. If you have ever played an online game you will have noticed the effects of lag as your opponents movements appear choppy or halted. They’ll move sporadically around the screen or you will freeze up momentarily (and likely die).

Net neutrality exacerbates this problem by prohibiting ISPs from prioritizing video game traffic and making it compete with spam, YouPorn, Facebook posts. or any of myriad other sources of noise on the wire. The game for which you need a high-qulity, stable connection is forced to duke it out with traffic that has no such requirement.

The Kotaku piece actually tries to argue that net neutrality regulations would somehow help latency and jitter.

For better or worse, latency is a factor that can be hugely impacted by decisions that ISPs make. Reducing latency is hard (emphasis mine), so it would be much easier for ISPs to let latency drift upwards—especially if it gave gamers a reason to pay extra for a special “low latency” connection that can be monetized.

This logic is bizarre at best and absolutely wrong at worst.

Reducing latency is actually fairly easy as long as you are allowed to prioritize any game traffic that moves across the network. Their argument amounts to “getting a package to you overnight is really hard so we want this law that prevents FedEx and UPS from providing such a service. Instead, everyone should be forced to use the US Postal Service.”

Microsoft or Sony could easily help their gamers out by working with ISPs to elevate game traffic to the benefit of their players. That’s exactly what Blizzard did with Teliosonera in order to ensure that World of Warcraft players had access to a low-latency pipe for their games.

Creating the equivalent of an overnight delivery service that works outside of the postal stream that is the open net in order to guarantee your game traffic gets there first is actually easy, and as demonstrated by Blizzard, has already been proven effective.

Unfortunately, net neutrality regulations guarantee that reducing latency WILL be hard. NN regs as favored by Weinberg and Vrignaud prohibit ISPs from treating latency-sensitive applications like online games differently than they treat the rest of the mail (or email, in this case). They prevent ISPs from shaping traffic to the benefit of the customer and instead force a “one size fits all” technology approach on data streams that are remarkably different in their need for reliability.

Most of the Kotaku piece seems to argue that ISPs would be incentivized to increase latency just so they could get money out of companies like Microsoft and Sony. The logic behind the claims is pretty flawed, however. As evidence, Weinberg and Vrignaud argue that there is simply not much competition and most folks have only one or two ISPs to choose from.

That’s currently true for a simple reason – deploying fiber is incredibly expensive and it is difficult to steal customers from the existing incumbents. That becomes less true if the options for competitors offer differentiation. Create another ice cream shop that only sells vanilla and you will have a tough time convincing folks to leave the shop they have frequented for years. Become the first guy to sell chocolate and suddenly you can move some units.

If Comcast actively sought to increase lag, and Verizon could set itself apart by guaranteeing reduced latency, then FiOS suddenly has built in market appeal. That’s how the market works. Introduce enough factors of variation into the market and suddenly you have incentive for more competitors to sprout up.

Not many companies will expend billions on infrastructure if there are few “low hanging fruit” customers to be snatched. But allow ISPS to compete on differentiated services and suddenly the options increase. As long as no differentiation is allowed, you’ll never get competitive options.

Low data caps are all but guaranteed under net neutrality

The one piece of the article that Weinberg and Vrignaud got right is their concern over low data caps. I run into caps on my mobile use almost monthly and it’s annoying. But if low caps are a problem, don’t expect them to get better under net neutrality.

Let’s look again at the FedEx analogy. If all roads were paid for solely by single car drivers, the amount of road expansion being done would be dramatically reduced. If the only tax revenue available for roads came from individuals, there would be a lot less effort to build more. Instead, we have corporate taxation on all the commercial services that run on top of those roads and invest a good deal of that tax base into creating more roads.

The fees charged by ISPs to companies like Microsoft or Sony for prioritizing XBox Live and PlayStation traffic augment the subscriber fees paid by end users. Those collective funds are put back into the network allowing more and faster expansion of both capacity and caps. By limiting income to only one side of the ledger (the consumer side), you limit the amount potentially available for growth.

Net neutrality, because it enforces exactly that type of limit, guarantees that build out is done solely on the backs of the gamers (and Netflix users, etc.). Further, it guarantees that you will be asked to make up the shortfall in the form of low data caps and overage charges. By allowing ISPs to enter ‘pay for premium’ agreements with companies that want to reach you, two things would likely happen.

First, as mentioned, you would get a better gaming experience because your game traffic gets priority access. Every gamer gets the equivalent of the Disney FastPass for their traffic.

Second, the amount of money available for network expansion would increase resulting in more available capacity and higher caps.

But net neutrality, contrary to Weinberg and Vrignaud’s assertions, will guarantee exactly the opposite – laggy, expensive, and bandwidth-limited gaming.

Written by Turk