Cox tests premium low-lag gaming service

In a move that will likely raise the hackles of network neutrality advocates, Cox Communications has begun to trial a low-latency gaming tier in Arizona for broadband customers who get speeds of at least 100 Mbit/s (downstream).

The trial offering, called Cox Elite Gamer, sells for $14.99 per month for two licenses (allowing two users in the home to use the low-latency capability). Additional licenses -- up to five per account -- run an extra $4.99 per month. Cox confirmed that Cox Elite Gamer is a white-labeled version of WTFast, a service based out of Canada that currently retails for $14.99 per month, or $149.90 for an annual subscription (roughly $12.49 per month).

Cox said it intends to run the trial for three months, and will later evaluate the results to determine next steps.

Entering the Low-Lag Game
Cox said test results of the low-latency service for online gamers will determine if it will offer it on a larger scale.
Cox said test results of the low-latency service for online gamers will determine if it will offer it on a larger scale.

According to Cox, the new low-latency service provides "enhanced routing to gaming-related Internet endpoints," and is an optional add-on to Internet service but is not in itself an Internet service. The service, it adds, selects an "optimized" Internet path for each gaming session initiative by customers to reduce jitter and ping spikes and, more generally, to create a more stable connection to gaming servers.

Per some fine print posted online, Cox Elite Gamer is for PCs only. The company also mentions that, compared to standard Cox Internet service, users on the new gaming-optimized offering will experience up to 34% less lag, 55% fewer ping spikes and 45% less jitter.

Despite the fact that WTFast already offers the product in the direct-to-consumer retail segment, Cox's white-label version of the product will likely get some attention from network neutrality advocates as the "Save the Internet Act" aims to reverse the FCC's rollback of past rules.

However, Cox stressed that Cox Elite Gamer steers clear of network neutrality concerns in part because it does not prioritize gaming traffic ahead of other traffic on the MSO's network and does not boost the speed of any Internet traffic travelling its networks.

"This offering would be permissible regardless of regulatory environment as it does not alter speed in any way nor does it prioritize any traffic over others on our network," a Cox spokesman said in a statement. "Cox Elite Gamer solves a problem with deficiencies in the public Internet, NOT our network. No customer's experience is degraded as a result of any customers purchasing Cox Elite Gamer service as an add-on to their Internet service."

Low-latency gaming an emerging ISP opportunity
Cox's trial is likely the front edge of a larger trend, as cable operators and other ISPs are expected to explore premium low-latency services tailored for gamers that can aid with retention and create an important new revenue stream that extends beyond moving consumers to higher speed tiers.

A startup called Haste is also pursuing this opportunity. Alongside its retail offering, Haste has also been discussing how its low-latency gaming service, which recognizes gaming traffic and sends it along the four fastest and most stable paths available to the gamer servers, can be bundled with broadband services.

Last fall, Haste CEO Lynn Perry said those talks were at the "early stage," and followed Haste's participation at last year's CableLabs Summer Conference in Keystone, Colo. "What we've heard is that they [the service providers] want to have an answer to that [latency issue], and that they're a possible solution to latency, which has become more and more important" as online gaming continues to increase in popularity."

Perry also stressed that Haste sidesteps network neutrality concerns. "We are using the Internet as the Internet is, without any prioritization," she said then. "We're just taking over the game packet and volleying it along the points-of-presence that we have."

Haste is also a partner of Edge Gravity, a unit of Ericsson that is combining a core network of data centers with the last-mile networks of partners that include cable operators, telcos and mobile service providers. The roster of providers includes Rogers Communications, Telstra Corp., Bharti Airtel, Telefónica , NTT DoCoMo, China Unicom and Chunghwa Telecom Co. Ltd.

Edge Gravity is emphasizing the low-latency gaming business opportunity for partners. In an online study conducted last fall with 1,500 adult gamers (including 1,000 in the US), Ericsson found that the group is receptive to paying for a premium, low-latency service – 21% said they are "very likely" to purchase the concept, and 35% said they would be "somewhat likely." Just 8% fell into the "very unlikely" camp.

Of that group, online lag was the most commonly cited frustration with online gaming, followed by game freezing and "dying" and having to start over. However, another issue was the money they are spending on online gaming, which seems to partly counteract the desire to pay more for an optimized, low-latency gaming service.

And there's a big variance over what consumers might be willing to pay. A study from Van Westendorp found that the acceptable price range is between $10 to $24.75 per month among US consumers, with $18.50 per month viewed as the "optimal" price.

And offering a low-latency option could help out ISPs in the customer service arena, as 53% of gamers tend to call the ISP to resolve lag-related issues, and just 24% reach out to the game maker.

Of note, CableLabs is working on new low-latency features for DOCSIS, but has not revealed any new specifications tied to that work.

And Cox isn't the only broadband service provider looking into premium services tailored for gamers. Verizon is reportedly testing a performance-focused gaming service that is already running on Android TV-powered Nvidia Shield consoles and will eventually make its way onto Android smartphones. The Verge speculated that Verizon's offering is using software from Utomik.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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