AT&T tests gaming traffic prioritization amid net neutrality debate

AT&T's tentative forays into cloud gaming aren't designed to create a consumer-facing service but are instead a way for the company to potentially develop gaming-specific service plans for its customers.

But so far the company has no concrete plans to offer that kind of a service. Further, such offerings would likely raise questions about net neutrality.

"It's not something we've been offering live yet," Matthew Wallace, AT&T's assistant vice president of 5G product and innovation, told The Verge. He said the operator is testing ways to "ensure resources are allocated to customers who are using a cloud gaming app," but noted there are no firm plans to launch such an offering commercially.

"We have not figured out go-to-market on any of these things, but you could imagine a future where for the right service levels, gaming just works for the customer – they don't have to do anything special," he added.

It's worth noting that AT&T isn't alone. For example, cable company Cox Communications began testing a low-latency gaming service in 2019 and continues to offer the service on its website.

Flirting with cloud gaming

For its part, AT&T is no stranger to the concept of cloud gaming. Such technology promises to host complex video games in the cloud, thereby eliminating the need for players to buy expensive computing consoles. However, for quick-reaction games like first-person shooters to work over the cloud, players must have a speedy, reliable connection to the Internet.

(Source: Unsplash)
(Source: Unsplash)

Wallace told the Verge that AT&T is looking at ways to create optimized paths for cloud gaming data to travel through its network, thus improving players' experience.

Already, AT&T last year announced it would offer its customers a free, six-month subscription to the Stadia Pro cloud gaming service. More recently, AT&T has offered its customers free access to the Control Ultimate Edition and Batman: Arkham Knight video games via the cloud. Doing so made AT&T the first company to offer Google's Stadia cloud gaming service under a white label arrangement.

But AT&T isn't the only telecom provider to dip into the cloud gaming industry. Deutsche Telekom in Germany in 2020 launched a cloud-based video game streaming service called MagentaGaming that leverages edge computing technology, and can work on the operator's 5G network.

And, according to The Verge, Verizon in 2019 tested a Verizon Gaming-branded game-streaming service on the Nvidia Shield set-top box.

Perhaps not surprisingly, networking vendors are keen to provide the technologies that would support such offerings. "Mobile cloud gaming is seen as an early use case opportunity enabled by network slicing. This is because slicing can provide gamers the guarantee of the performance needed for a good user experience," networking vendor Ericsson wrote in June. "Communication service providers (CSPs) now need to make plans for how to monetize this new use case opportunity."

Paying for priority

But, as The Verge notes, a service plan from AT&T that would prioritize gamers' traffic would presumably do so at the expense of other users. And that could run counter to the principles of net neutrality.

Of course, net neutrality in the US remains a complicated subject. It was first instituted by the FCC during the Obama administration, but then promptly scuttled under Trump. President Biden has promised to re-institute net neutrality, but his nominee to the FCC, Gigi Sohn, may never sit on the Commission. That would leave the five-member FCC split between two Republicans and two Democrats.

Meanwhile, legislators at the state and federal level have moved on their own into the net neutrality debate. For example, Californian regulators have successfully fought off challenges to their efforts to institute net neutrality at a state level.

And, on a federal level, some Democrats are preparing to introduce net neutrality legislation this week, according to Broadcasting+Cable. Specifically, a bill authored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) would classify Internet access as "an essential service," and would allow the FCC to prevent blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. The upcoming midterm elections in November will likely decide that legislation's fate.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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