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GEEK OUT - Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

On Monday (that's ... today!) the Federal Communications Commission is expected to lay out some official rules regarding Net Neutrality, a hot-button issue for Slashdotters and other super-nerds over the past few years. Everyone from the Commission chair to president freakin-Obama publicly states that Net Neutrality is the right thing to do - but so far, enforcement has lacked teeth.

This GEEKS ME OUT because network regulation has a direct, profound impact on the growth of the video game industry, not just in the far future, but immediately. If you use the Internet (hello, and welcome to it), this affects you.


"Net Neutrality" refers to policies and procedures for making the Internet a level playing field for all online services. Internet Service Providers like Comcast and AT&T use their infrastructure ownership as clout, to dictate terms of service to the consumer, like monthly download caps.

Source image courtesy Dave Winer/Wikimedia Commons

Despite current, vague legislation, ISPs are more-or-less permitted to direct traffic as they see fit. Comcast was accused of blocking Vonage (while introducing its own VoIP service). Time Warner cable reserves the right to throttle internet video. The most common victim is BitTorrent, with ISPs in general choking the life out of torrent traffic.

Of course, if you have an iPhone or other mobile broadband device, you can forget about just about anything beyond light web browsing, unless AT&T says it's okay.

The goal of Net Neutrality is that all online service providers, be they audio, video, download or gaming, have equal opportunity to serve the consuming public, regardless of the target device.


So why should you care about Network Neutrality legislation? How about online gaming? However lag-free your connection is, you probably think it could be better. AT&T is trying to claim that "broadband" doesn't cover games, in order to get away with not caring about game-quality service. Meanwhile Comcast uses their "SpeedBoost" "technology" to prematurely ejaculate bandwidth at the beginning of a connection, then limp along until connection activity pulls out - good for surfing porn, not so much for keeping up a hot and steamy Team Fortress match.

American ISPs have been trying to get away with shitty service since the invention of the word "shit." But Net Neutrality rules, in the act of opening up the online marketplace, will increase consumer demand for connections that are actually fast and reliable. Not overnight, but ultimately, rich online services will hold ISPs accountable for their connection quality.

The second reason Net Neutrality should keep you up at night is smartphone gaming. Yeah, yeah, iPhone games are for retards - but like it or not, this segment of the market is exploding with the force of a thousand Steve Ballmers, and mobile games are coming closer and closer to serious sophistication. It seems pretty likely that the next handheld platforms from Nintendo and Sony and whoever else will come packing 3G or 4G mobile broadband connectivity. But there's a problem looming: mobile broadband providers.

AT&T is the man of the house now, with the ability to say yes or no to whatever iPhone applications end up on its network. It hasn't affected games yet (at least not that I'm aware of), but if Ma Bell has a problem with streaming video, how much do you think it'll like the idea of a mobile MMORPG? Or a multiplayer action game with a large, active playerbase? Since Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have nearly identical 3G service plans ($60/5GB/month), they'll probably see things the same way - unless legally obligated otherwise. Solid Net Neutrality rules would prevent mobile broadband providers from playing favorites with their network applications, and require that they allow the same categories of usage as non-mobile broadband.

Finally, and most immediately, Net Neutrality rules will determine how long it takes you to download a game on demand, and how much it will cost. I said it already above - BitTorrent is at the top of most ISPs hitlists. Which sucks, because if there is a future in Microsoft's Games on Demand service, it's torrented distribution.

Frankly I'm surprised that Microsoft, and Valve for that matter, haven't already picked up on this. Blizzard uses torrents to distribute World of Warcraft patches, and it works brilliantly. Downloading huge files from Xbox Live and Steam not only limits your download rate to their servers' availability, but also puts a huge strain on their pipes, and their bandwidth bills (which of course leads to less availability for other downloaders). The Internet was designed to be distributed, and if the FCC starts really cracking down on ISPs interfering with torrent traffic, then speedy, torrented game downloads will be an obvious imperative to digital game distribution.

If you think that shifty ISPs are only a problem in America - which you might, since we're the only country that matters - you might want to check on that. European ISPs in particular have historically shamed American ones in terms of connection quality, but the kind of shit that Comcast et al get away with is clearly setting a dangerous example.

Hopefully the FCC is about to set a counter-example. Vegas odds on today's statement are that it will be pro-consumer, but it remains to be seen what kinds of standards they'll set for our online rights. Don't wimp out, FCC!
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About TSuerethone of us since 8:04 PM on 07.31.2009

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