Monday, February 7, 2011

The FCC: Stuck in Neutral (Maximum PC, March 2011)

This month's "Game Theory" column for Maximum PC has generated some wider interest, but it is not yet on the magazine's site. Since I've been asked to make it available, Max PC has allowed to me to publish a slightly longer version here. 

“FCC seeks internet control” was one of the main themes of tech reporting in 2010. The first thing that surprised me was that an agency created in the 1930s to regulate the radio spectrum was attempting to exert their nonexistent authority over the entire internet.

The second thing that surprised me was that the FCC continues to exist at all. Like the Federal Reserve and the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Health & Human Services, it’s a useless, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that does more harm than good. The courts have already told the FCC where to step off, but the Obama administration won’t let it rest.

This is no place to hash out the arguments for and against so-called “net neutrality.” Simply put: I’m agin’ it. It’s one of those things that sounds perfectly reasonable (we need to protect open access to the internet!), but in fact addresses a nonexistent problem.

Worse, it just let’s the camel’s nose under the tent. In this case, the nose is the FCC and their regulatory power, and the tent is the entire internet. If you think the 5 appointed political hacks on the Commission are just the people to tame the wild internet, then your naïveté is kind of sweet. It’s also infantile.

But how does any of this impact gaming, you may ask?

Well, online gamers may well be targeted as “bandwidth hogs” as ISPs try to accommodate growing demands for bandwidth. The rapidly increasing demands for streaming video and online gaming are certainly going to require a better infrastructure. Free enterprise will realize there is a buck to be made, and step in to increase that capacity, or restructure their fees so that people who use more pay more.

I’m fine with that. I don’t see why my parents’ household (which uses their internet access mostly to forward chain letters and long-debunked urban legends) should pay exactly the same fees as mine (which regularly hoovers up a couple hours of Netflix and a few more of online gaming per day).

In truth, games aren’t a vast bandwidth drain. Some estimates put World of Warcraft, for example, at less than 5MB per hour, and a little higher when more characters are involved in an event. A shooter, however, might eat anywhere from 40MB to 300MB per hour, depending on the game, size of the session, and other factors.

Government regulation cannot increase the bandwidth we need for our games. Only private industry can do that, and the one thing guaranteed to slow that growth is more regulation.


Anonymous said...

Very good article that is the opposite opinion of my own. The point is we are already paying for the pipe. We pay more for a bigger pipe. Metering the pipe adds to over charging with penalty rates or slowing down our bandwidth randomly while we try to troubleshoot what is wrong. Lets face it this is about controlling content that is in competition with the providers premium services. Every provider offers these services. I think is we are going to have the ability to control content then do it ethically and honestly. The only way this will happen is to split off these services from the internet providers.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I see your point, but I'm against it for a few reasons.

First, it's still a solution in search of a problem. There's no real proof they're doing this or planning to do it. I imagine if it was a matter of a provider stepping down content from, say, Netflix, Netflix would cut a deal with them on their own. That's how business operates.

Second, it creates a precedent for government involvement, and that's rarely a good thing. I also object to the idea of an internet kill switch or anti-terrorism provisions that allow for unlimited internet spying in violation of the 4th amendment.

Finally, this is not a situation like AT&T in the 1980s. There is no internet monopoly that needs to be broken up. If Verizon starts screwing with my connection speeds, I'll go back to Comcast. Trust me: at this point, Comcast in our area is so desperate to have me back, they'd do just about anything. When I made noise about a potential rate hike from Verizon, customer service said to call a special number, tell them I was thinking of switching, and ask for a better deal.

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