This past week a federal appeals court in the United States struck down the Net Neutrality laws set in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The court found the laws to be unfounded and that they did not treat internet service providers (ISPs) correctly. Before delving too deeply into what this could mean for gaming, let's break down what exactly happened in laymen's terms.
These laws were developed to ensure that ISPs like Comcast, Verizon or others would provide equal, or neutral, access and distribution of internet services to individuals and to the different products and services they were using. This means, just because your neighbor may only use the internet to check email once a week and you stream Netflix and play World of Warcraft every night, you would still have available to you the same deals and prices on internet. It was sort of like an equal access, no discrimination law, as it includes language about not differentiating based on race, religion, etc. It also meant that companies could not block competing traffic on their network. By competing traffic, I mean that a company like Verizon, for example, that may also provide your cable and some streamed programming, would not be allowed to short-change your ability to stream Netflix in order to make their cable services more preferable.
On Monday, January 13th, 2014 in the United States, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. ruled that these Net Neutrality laws were not allowed to dictate how ISPs manage their traffic, in effect overturning the Neutrality laws all together. The crux of the decision was that the FCC was treating these ISPs like "common carriers" - which is some type of legal jargon. Ultimately, while ISPs still cannot discriminate against their users on matters of race or religion, they are theoretically allowed to gimp services to certain customers and decide how they manage their traffic.
Pardon the impending pun, but this is neither good nor bad - it's neutral. It may surely lead to bad things with ISPs deciding to throttle services, charge companies more to prioritize things like Netflix and Hulu, or even lead to higher costs in order to support high-bandwidth activities such as multiplayer gaming and streaming video content. However, at the same time, it could mean that ISPs could prioritize and manage their services in such a way that those users that require more have that more easily accessible and readily available. It's hard to really tell what the ultimate outcome will be at this point.
All of this is just white noise in the form of words if we don't put some context around the situation though. So, as a matter of practical application, let's look at how it could affect specific things that you probably do a lot of as a gamer:
Online Gaming - This is the obvious one. It's easy to imagine an unlikely apocalyptic-level scenario where you might get more lag in your rounds of Call of Duty, or lag out in a heated PvP match in Guild Wars 2, but that type of stuff is really unlikely. The crux of the fear here, though, is that stuff like online gaming really does take up a lot of bandwidth. Your connection is working overtime as you are constantly sending servers info, recieving info, uploading and downloading information, etc. and this stress will increase as the power of game systems continues to evolve. Ideally, the reliability of internet will progress in tandem, but that's clearly not always the case. It could mean companies like Sony and Microsoft are charged more in order to prioritize their services, which could in turn up the costs of things like PS Plus, XBL Gold or even MMO subscription fees. Time will tell if this is actually the case.
Video Streaming Services - It's also possible that this could affect video streaming services in similar ways. This means things like Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu and even YouTube could see caps on their output, lower quality and other measures that ISPs could employ in order to more strategically manage their services. The real issue here is that, as most people know, those services are truly making a dent in the profits and member counts of cable providers. Those same cable providers (AT&T, Verizon, Charter and others) also provide internet as package deals. The logic here is that in order to prioritize their own streaming and video services, they may hinder, or at least limit, your ability to use competing services.
Game Streaming - While I don't know anyone personally that actually uses OnLive, it looks like technology might finally be getting to the point where cloud gaming and streaming is feasible. At the forefront of these innovations is Sony. The recently detailed PlayStation Now service would allow game streaming directly to consoles like your PS4 and PS3, but also several different models of Sony televisions. By trying to bring a wider catalogue of games to consumers, Sony could find itself right in the middle of this entire Net Neutrality business. If ISPs are allowed to hold back services like streaming and online gaming, PS Now and whatever comparable alternatives Nintendo and Microsoft cook up could really be in trouble. Theoretically, of course.
Quite frankly, I have no idea. We could be on the verge of segregated internet offerings, with premium prices to play a round of Battlefield before using your ration of Netflix viewing for the week, or nothing could change. These laws didn't even go into effect until 2011 and internet usage seemed to function about the same beforehand. However, as consoles and households move more and more to a connected and web-ran structure, the issue of internet availability and usage will become more and more important. The FCC could alter the laws in such a way that they are allowed to stand and they still have jurisdiction to regulate as long as they abide by certain aspects the previous laws violated, so it's entirely possible that everything will remain the same.
What are your thoughts on the issue? We would love to hear opinions from other gamers out there and how you have been affected by the rise in necessity for internet in order to even play the games you love. God only knows how terrible things could be if this gets out of hand. Let us know down in the comments below!
Source: Game Informer