COVID got a lot more people into gaming. That’s great for people who want to stay occupied and connected, but it’s not as fun for the ISPs and telcos who have to manage the data gamers use. And with the amount of network spikes every time Call of Duty or Fortnite drops a patch, it’s no surprise that telcos are starting to get a bit irritable.
The latest complaints have come from the head of regulatory and public affairs at Optus, with Andrew Sheridan saying video game companies and Netflix (along with other streaming services) need to contribute to broader investment in internet infrastructure.
“If we get this right it should ultimately be in the long-term interest of Australian consumers and businesses,” Optus’s Sheridan told the Australian Financial Review.
“The current situation is a substantial portion of traffic, particularly at peak period, is actually over-the-top traffic. A lot of it is gaming traffic. The big spikes are when the big gaming updates [arrive] from the likes of … Fortnite, Siege, Grand Theft Auto. If we look forward into the future, we’re going to see growth in traffic as we see proliferation of 8K, augmented reality and virtual reality.”
It’s worth clarifying here — unlike the former NBN Co CEO years ago — that Sheridan is specifically talking about game downloads and updates. Games don’t actually use that much data when you’re actually playing, although the situation is markedly different with titles like Microsoft Flight Simulator, or streaming services like Xbox’s Project xCloud.
And Optus aren’t alone here. Every single one of the 10 biggest days on Telstra’s network coincided with a major patch for Call of Duty or Fortnite, with the biggest day being the launch of COD‘s fifth season on August 5. (Interestingly, the launch of the Xbox Series X — where COD and Fortnite also had updates of their own — was the 7th biggest day for Telstra in 2020, while the PS5 launch didn’t register in the top 10 at all.)
“You might be just using your service for online education, but you are subsidising someone who is a very heavy gamer,” Sheridan added.
The Optus executive didn’t go so far as to propose any kind of firm policy or suggestion. Nikos Katinakis, the head of networks for Telstra, added that over-the-top providers (that’s your Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. of the world) “could do and should do a lot more in participating in the value creation and sharing the wealth that gets created”.
Major publishers of games like Call of Duty and Fortnite would fall under that banner too, and the telcos would surely want Microsoft, Sony and Google (whenever they get Stadia over to Australia) in those discussions too. But neither Optus or Telstra are openly calling for publishers to directly pay for their users here. It’s not even really a shot across the bow, because everyone knows the last 12 months has been such a massive outlier in terms of consumer behaviour.
Still, gaming isn’t going to get any less popular. And if even a decent chunk of the people who discovered gaming in 2020 stick with it, then there’s going to be a permanent shift in usage on our internet infrastructure. So the telcos are really angling for a longer term strategy here to help underwrite the cost of data — and if a solution isn’t found, they’ll find another way to cover their costs. That could involve things like more limits on unlimited data connections, or price hikes on existing connections if things get particularly difficult.
Fortunately, however, game developers have started implementing vastly more efficient compression techniques to reduce the amount of hard drive space — and downloads — games need. Hitman 3‘s recent downsizing is a great example — and if telcos continue to struggle under the weight of big patches, it might be something more developers need to prioritise.