Sunday, 13 March 2011

Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is a topic that's been in the headlines lots over the past year or two, primarily the technology press but occasionally spilling over into the mainstream media, and is likely to be again in the next week as the main ISPs in the UK get together to announce a code of conduct on it. Net Neutrality is something that's close to me, both in what I do for a day job, and as a gamer and internet user so I thought I'd write a post on the subject. A warning to my regular reader: this post has nothing to do directly with priests, but as a gamer, Net Neutrality will have an effect on you. Firstly, what is Net Neutrality? Basically it's the premise that all things internet are equal; an internet user accessing a minuscule blog from an anonymous priest somewhere in the blogsphere will experience the same levels of service as if they accessed a big site such as the BBC. Similarly, my rich neighbour paying £100 a month for his super-duper top end connection (yes I'm making this up) gets the same level of service as me paying £30 a month. In a nutshell, true Net Neutrality means that no matter who the user or what the site, the same level of service would be achieved (I say service rather than speed or bandwidth as this could be bandwidth, latency QoS and a whole bunch of other things) obviously the physical capabilities of your connection will influence this, if you're 5 miles away from your exchange in deepest darkest country side you're unlikely to get as fast a connection as the guy who lives next door to the exchange.

This was all very well and good, in principle, back in the days of HTML only web page days, you may have had the odd JPEG or GIF but in essence each page hit would only account for a few hundred kilobytes of data at most. Any of you who've ever downloaded porn or stolen music used a P2P client, or even tried to access streaming media services such as iPlayer or YouTube at peak time will know that (most) ISPs actively rate the connection speed you can achieve for these services. There are several reasons for this; firstly cost! If everyone is streaming huge amounts of data the backbone (the connections between exchanges) won't be able to cope and will fall on its arse (and thus need upgrading) and fairness; secondly fairness, if one person is consistently hogging the bandwidth available, neighbours will suffer speed losses, this is called contention. Contention is one of the hidden gotcha's of broadband, it's actually a form of Net Neutrality avoidance that's been going on for ages; cheaper ISP's (generally but not always) will generally offer high contention levels, let say your 20Mb (yeah right, who gets that?) has a contention of 1:100, this means that up to 100 users could be sharing (actually more if you consider how many people in each house could be using the internet) at any one time. That's a measly 200kbps per house! The more expensive ISPs tend to have better contention ratios; basically you get what you pay for! Hence the net is already most definitely not neutral. Similar things happen on mobiles, anyone buying a smartphone today in the UK will have a data cap of around 1gb a month (depending on what they pay) this has been introduced because the mobile operators have realised that if everyone used their full allowance, let alone had unlimited data, their networks would be screwed. Similarly, you try using mobile internet at 9am in a busy station in London on a Monday morning, compared to 10pm in the centre Chorley on a Wednesday.

Why do ISPs want to be allowed to not have Net Neutrality then? Basically, in the UK at least, its cost. Huge cost which is driven by a few websites offering streamed media services, which costs the ISPs a fortune, and the companies which are the source of this data absolutely nothing – and this is the problem, any Tom Dick or Harry can stick a server on the internet (yes you'll pay for data hosting etc.) and stream 'stuff' to any location in the world without having to pick up the cost of transporting that data outside of their connection to the internet. i.e. if you pay for an internet connection from poor speed broadband inc. and you send data to people who are customers of Sky, Virgin and BT, those companies pay the cost of transporting that data and Tom Dick and Harry get away scot-free.

So what does this have to do with gaming I hear you ask? Well lots actually, do a little experiment, stick iPlayer on (if you're in the UK) or some other streamed TV service, download a decent sized file from a P2P site or filesharing website, and then stick WOW on and try and do something. Unless you have a fibre connection, and actually even if you have one, you'll probably find the game is unplayable – this is because the routers, the devices like your broadband router (but bigger) on the internet are set up to simply drop data packets (i.e. just ignore them) when they're busy, or at the very least delay them – some packets have higher priority than others – there's not much point getting a packet from a streamed audio file 2 seconds too late, it would just give garbled sound, however if you have to wait 2 additional seconds for a web page to load it's no biggy, hence the prioritisation (and another source of non-neutralness). Gaming is one of these time sensitive services, especially high action first person shooters, those with a 'quick' connection have a distinct advantage over their slower competition, but even with WOW if your latency is above 200ms you're likely to be experiencing degradation of gameplay.

The premise is that ISPs charge the data providers to increase the priority of their traffic over their competition to recover this cost, basically creating a two-tier internet of 'standard rate' free traffic which gets where it's going sometime, and high speed, high priority traffic which leaves the standard traffic standing in its dust. This has huge implications for companies like the BBC whose iPlayer service is one of the main 'hoggers' of bandwidth in the UK (and soon to be the world). I'm not going to get into the rights and wrongs of Net Neutrality, it's a very poignant subject, I can see it from the fairness of apportioning cost side of the argument, and I can also see the need to make the internet available to everyone – I've seen a study recently (sorry I can't remember the link) which refers to internet access as a basic human right, in the same way as water and personal safety are, I'm not sure I agree with this, but it highlights the internet's importance to the modern world.

Who actually pays then? Simple, you do. It may be that Blizzard pays a 'congestion surcharge' direct to the ISPs, let's say £1 per user, the user doesn't on the face of it pay anything extra. Blizzard doesn't simply magic this money from nowhere, they are in the business of making profit, so they either increase their subscription cost, or they reduce cost in other areas to cover it – reduce the amount the pay for development of new dungeons perhaps? Thus the quality of the game you experience. It's not all bad though, as a user, your gaming traffic is now tip top priority so your lag levels reduce and you rarely experience that annoying night of lag which ruins your guilds attempt on a progression boss.

I can see both sides of the argument, as a user I don't want to pay more, but I do want a good quality of service, and I don't want to suffer because my neighbour has decided to download every movie ever filmed to his PC. As a telecommunications (employee) I want my company to be able to make a fair profit, and not have to subsidise other companies' profits unfairly, but I do want to ensure our customers don't have to pay through the nose for it. It's a hard argument no matter which side of the fence you sit on, the fact of the matter is that it's been happening for years with packet prioritisation and contention, life isn't 'fair' and I'm certain it will happen in some guise or other, so long as it's fair and reasonably costed, and doesn't disadvantage lower privileged communities; gaming is most definitely a premium, luxury, service but things like free media or local government services are often becoming a necessity.

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