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OPINION Gaming broadband during lockdown and beyond

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With lockdown driving people to game, there is a big impact on broadband – so what can be done to make broadband better for gamers? Drew Marshall shares his views

The gaming industry has seen a huge increase in online gaming over the past two months-plus of lock down. More and more people have now started to invest in professional laptops like razer gaming laptop for their gaming sessions.  In the UK, NHS healthcare staff are getting free access to video games and Facebook has launched a gaming app to rival Twitch and YouTube.

eSports is expanding in the UK and the need for quality, high bandwidth, low latency broadband has never been greater. Openreach and other providers continue to roll out fibre and we are now seeing 1Gb broadband connection speeds.

For many millions of people across the UK and Europe, broadband has become as an essential a service as utilities like Gas and Electricity. The purpose of this article is not to get in to a debate as to whether broadband is a utility, or should be a utility – but it’s fair to say that for the people who rely on broadband to work, game, stay in contact socially etc the loss of broadband service can have a big impact.

For the most part, broadband in the UK has become a race to the bottom with the largest providers in constant competition with each other to deliver the cheapest deals to their customers. The “big four” ISP’s are responsible for 80% of the fixed line broadband market and they are vulnerable to competition because they are all delivering the same product. They have no competitive edge over each other and their “cheapest is best” strategy has delivered us a commoditised broadband market.

But broadband isn’t like other commodities like Gas and Electricity? Or is it? It depends what you are expecting from your broadband. Gas and Electricity ends up being presented to you, the consumer in the same way.

When you turn your gas hob on at 8pm you will get a full flame and you will be able to cook your supper. When you turn your bathroom light on at 9pm you are delivered a lit bulb. Broadband is different and if broadband were gas you may well turn it on full at 8pm to cook your supper and end up with a much smaller flame than you would get at 3 o’clock in the morning.

This is because the largest ISP’s must extend the contention on their network to be able to deliver a service to their consumers at the price point they have picked. Ofcom acknowledge that broadband speeds can and do slow down during peak times (between 8-10pm) and providers who sign up to the Ofcom voluntary code of practice on internet speeds do advise their prospective customers that they could see slower speeds during peak time.

It is called peak because that is when everyone wants to use it, and for the most part, ISP’s that extend the contention on their broadband connections do not have huge complaints from people.

You can still surf the web; you can still watch Netflix (Netflix recommends broadband speed of approx. 1.5Mbps and employs caching technology to ensure consumers receive a great experience) but not at your full line rate. This only becomes a problem when more than one person wants to watch Netflix at the same time or when your use is different from the average person, which is more often than you might realise.

So how does this effect gamers?

The simple answer is a lot. Gaming is not about having the biggest broadband. Gaming traffic is typically lots of small packets of data. Most ISP’s will focus on “bandwidth” or “speed” but the most important thing to a gamer is latency and jitter. In very simple terms latency is the time it takes for data to be transmitted from your gaming computer to a gaming server and returned to your computer. Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms) and the lower the number the better. Jitter is a measure of the variation of latency. Jitter is bad. A packet that takes 20ms to do a round trip but then increases to 150ms and then back down to 20ms is “jittery” and as you can imagine, lots of small bits of data being sent / received during gaming needs to be fast and consistent. The best broadband for gamers is low latency, low jitter.

If your ISP has signed up to the Ofcom voluntary code of practice on internet speeds and has to publish the minimum speeds you will get during peak times then there’s a very good chance that during these times you will not only see your speeds drop but that your latency will increase. Contention and latency do not go hand in hand and contention is not a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when networks are contended too much.

If your core network is not capable of supporting all your broadband traffic during peak time you must slow the flow of traffic. The network is like a rush hour motorway and if it becomes congested your broadband customers will suffer. In fact, the real world motorway scenario is an example of how an increase in demand is handled. When motorway traffic increases variable speed limits are introduced to ensure traffic flows smoothly.

This results in your speeds are reduced from 70mph to as low as 40mph. This is contention. When the motorway is full of cars and your speed is fluctuating between 10 and 40mph this is latency and jitter.

ISP’s contend because they must, because financially they must, because they have created and we (the consumer) have demanded the lowest prices possible. This is not a dig at the mainstream ISP’s. They have shareholders to satisfy and for the main part they deliver the service expected of them but if you are a gamer and you need something better, something that fits your needs, you would be better looking at a broadband provider who understands what you want.

So back to the original point. We treat broadband as a utility, but gamers need broadband that is not designed for the average. If the remit for broadband was to deliver a service that can support YouTube videos and Netflix, then all is fine with the world. If you are a gamer, then you need something different, you need a better broadband than the majority of ISP’s choose to provide.

The future for gaming and esports can be bright and we are starting to see ISP’s entering the arena and providing well priced, good quality broadband with core networks that have been designed with gamers in mind. For example, our own network prioritises smaller packets and our switches have deep buffers that connect to our 100Gb core network. We do not contend across our network and we partner with carriers that do not contend. Not all broadband networks are made equal and gamers need something different.

Author

Drew Marshall is Director Leetline Gaming Broadband, an ISP designed specifically to deliver better broadband for gamers, streamers and anyone that needs low latency, smooth broadband without the horrible jitters that can effect game play

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