Google recently took some of the wraps off its Stadia video game streaming service, while Microsoft may raise the curtain on its own xCloud game streaming service at next week's big E3 video game conference.
Such services promise to stream complex, high-powered video games -- ones that require instant connections between players' trigger fingers and their avatars' digital weapons -- across an Internet that was primarily designed for checking email and visiting websites.
Google has promised that its network of data centers and fiber lines are up to the task, and Stadia players need only an Internet connection of at least 10Mbit/s (for 720p video and 60 FPS). However, the search giant has remained silent about the other network performance metrics that players might need, including the latency and jitter of their connection.
But clearly, the company is thinking about such issues. "You should not expect your existing cellular connection to work," Google Stadia project manager Andrey Doronichev told The Verge. Though he added that 5G might change that.
Still, Internet download speeds are just one performance factor, and things like latency, packet loss and jitter might be as important to streaming video games over the Internet than raw speed.
Enter startup Network Next, which argues that it has developed a way to drag the internet into the world of real-time communications with the best incentive of all: money.
"At a very high level we're almost like Google AdWords for [Internet data] packets, or Waze for packets." said Glenn Fiedler, Network Next's CEO. Network Next is working to create a marketplace for speedy Internet connections by identifying the companies that would pay for that kind of service (initially online video game companies) and matching them with the cloud providers, ISPs, CDN companies and others that have built speedy Internet routes.
"Just imagine: You want to get to work on time. If you've only got one freeway, nothing is going to help. But what if there were a thousand freeways? A million? There are so many different paths to get from A to B on Network Next that what we do is we're continually looking at all the ways to find the best way that minimizes whatever the customer wants, which is usually minimizing latency, packet loss and jitter," Fiedler explained. "And then every 10 seconds we re-evaluate that. So it could be [a route that travels across] Limelight-Google-Amazon, then suddenly it's Stackpath-blah-blah-blah. We prefer to stay on one route if we can, we don't want to hop around all the time, but it's very rare when we simply hop on one provider's network. It's a multi-supplier thing."
Network Next is continually working to line up the best routes across the Internet by using a real-time auction marketplace much like what Google's AdWords does for Internet searches.
"Our business model is basically that all these suppliers specify how many cents per Gig they want, and the buyer gets to decide, 'alright, I don't want to pay more than this,'" Fiedler said. "It's a very capitalist dance between the buyers and the sellers." (It's worth noting that, like a true entrepreneur, Fiedler called the design a "money-making machine.")
Fiedler said Network Next takes 1 cent per Gig off the top, and that most transactions right now are sitting around 5-6 cents per Gig.
An aging design
Fiedler explained that the design of the public internet is largely stuck in the 1970s, and isn't optimized for real-time gaming and other high-speed, instant-response services. To get around that problem, companies like Google, Amazon and a large number of others have built their own private Internet routes to ensure they can offer real-time services like Stadia.
"What happening that I think is terrible is that the public Internet is turning into this neglected commons. And all these private networks are growing at a faster rate than the public internet," he said. "Now it's just a bunch of private networks with walls. The clouds and the CDNs are bigger than the actual Internet… You've got all these private networks out there and then no traffic goes across them unless you're a customer of that particular provider."
The solution, according to Fiedler, is to incentivize the companies that own those private routes to open them up to select public traffic. "We provide value by helping them discriminate paid versus unpaid traffic, so they can scrub unpaid traffic at the edge and only carry paid traffic at a price they specify, over their private network," he said.
This is something the online gaming space really needs right now, Fiedler said. "We've got this Internet that's so big and so complex, with millions of different moving pieces and thousands of different providers, probably millions. And they don't talk to each other at all. So this ISP suddenly screws up a route and they're not getting their players to this particular server… So what we do is go, 'Alright, it looks like you've got a bad route, you're hairpinning. We'll fix that. You go here and then here, and now it's a good connection.' So we steer that route," he said. "We take the routing decisions away from the internet and we plan them centrally on our AdWords-like marketplace. That's Network Next. It's centrally planned routing according to a neutral bidding process."
From video games to 5G
Fiedler hails from the video game industry, where he spent 20 years developing technologies including Sony's networking service for its PlayStation console and "God of War" game. He founded Network Next in 2017, and early this year the company raised $4.4 million in seed funding from Bitkraft Esports Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures, Velo Capital Partners and independent game developer Psyonix. Psyonix also integrated its online game "Rocket League" into Network Next's routing marketplace, and is now running up to 15,000 simultaneous players on the platform.
Fiedler acknowledged that it's still early days and that Network Next doesn't yet have the traffic volumes to make much of an impact on the overall design of the public Internet. But he said the company has been able to improve jitter and latency for some video gamers significantly. "It's not bad all the time, and it's not bad for everybody, but for a substantial percentage of the player base, it can be improved a lot," he said.
And that, he said, should ultimately benefit the companies providing those speedier routes. "If your link is legitimately, radically better than other suppliers, then you should be able to set a higher price and let the market sort it out," he said.
Network Next isn't the only company hoping to level the playing field for online gaming and other real-time services. Blade, Rainway, Blacknut, Haste and others are playing in this area. And with 5G and Stadia on the horizon, both generating noise around real-time connections and latency, it's reasonable to assume that more progress in this area is just ahead.