T-Mobile is going to be Microsoft's US partner in testing the software giant's new game streaming service, dubbed Project xCloud, in a mobile environment.
Microsoft announced today it will open up the service for testing by select customers in the US, UK and South Korea. The service allows customers to stream powerful, complex video games over the Internet. Like it already has with TV, newspapers, music and dozens of other industries, Internet streaming promises to dramatically overhaul the way the video game market works by eliminating the need for players to purchase a costly console to play high-end games like "Halo" or "Doom."
While much of Microsoft's Project xCloud efforts are focused on customers who are in their homes, using wired or WiFi connections, the company said it will also test how the service performs in a mobile environment.
"Mobile networks are an important part of global connectivity today, so we'll do our best to ensure that gamers have a great experience and Project xCloud is optimized for the widest range of network configurations possible," Microsoft's Kareem Choudhry wrote in a blog post by the company today. "Earlier this month, we announced a partnership with SK Telecom to deliver Project xCloud to gamers in Korea. We’re also working with T-Mobile in the US and Vodafone in the UK during the preview to learn more about the way gamers play on mobile networks; these are technical partnerships that will help us optimize the experience, but gamers across all carriers are eligible to participate in the preview."
Microsoft has been testing its Project xCloud service internally, but today's announcement of commercial testing marks the company's next step toward a possible widespread commercial deployment of the service at some point in the future. "Public preview is a critical phase in our multi-year ambition to deliver game streaming globally at the scale and quality of experience that the gaming community deserves and expects. It’s time to put Project xCloud to the test in a broader capacity, with a range of gamers, devices, network environments and real-world use-case scenarios," Choudhry wrote. "We now want you to play with us and share your feedback on Project xCloud so we can iterate and improve, week after week."
It's important to note that Microsoft executives have repeatedly insisted that full-blown Internet game streaming is a "multi-year journey."
Microsoft said customers interested in testing the service will need a phone or tablet running Android 6.0 or higher with Bluetooth 4.0, a Microsoft account and a Bluetooth-enabled Xbox One Wireless Controller.
Why this matters
Microsoft's Project xCloud tests are important because the company is the world's second-biggest purveyor of console-based video games with its Xbox, behind Sony's PlayStation and ahead of Nintendo's Switch.
Game streaming is a hot telecom topic today, mainly because it's still unclear how fixed and wireless networks might perform under the rigorous demands that a high-powered video game might place on users' connections. Today's telecom networks are mainly tuned to deliver copious amounts of content -- such as video and music -- and don't necessarily sport the kinds of instantaneous, real-time connections that a video game would presumably require. Each button press in a video game is a matter of digital life or death, whereas video or audio streaming requires only that a user press "play."
Regardless, companies including Microsoft and Google are moving into the game streaming sector, whether networks are ready or not. Indeed, Google has promised to launch its Stadia-branded video game streaming service in November in markets across the globe.
That could well pose some concerns among telecom executives. According to one Stadia calculation, an operator could face 2.5Tbit/s (yes, that's terabits per second) in network capacity demands if 100,000 Stadia customers began to play simultaneously, given Stadia's 35Mbit/s requirements.
But Google's Phil Harrison said he doesn't believe Stadia will bring down the Internet. He explained that the service likely won't ring up huge data charges for users. "I’ve seen the math calculations that people have done," he told GameSpot. "If you take 35Mbit/s, it’s not always 35Mbit/s because we use compression. There will be sometimes when actually it’s using significantly less data than that, so it’s not correct to multiply 35Mbit/s by the number of seconds that you play."
For Microsoft's xCloud, VentureBeat reported that a recent demonstration of the service ran at around 10Mbit/s.
Latency and edge computing
But network speeds and capacity are just one part of the equation. The other, and potentially more important, element of any game streaming service is latency. Latency is essentially the measurement of the time it takes for a user to communicate with the server that's hosting the game they're playing.
Many in the telecom industry have pointed to edge computing as a critical component to any Internet-based video game streaming service. Real-time connections, they argue, are only possible by moving the server hosting a game physically closer to the users who are playing that game. This kind of edge computing design could eliminate the lag that users might see between when they press a button and when their video game character responds to that command.
Microsoft officials have refused to answer questions from Light Reading about the networking, latency and potential edge computing requirements for Project xCloud. But Microsoft's Kevin LaChapelle told VentureBeat that "the speed of light is the speed of light. Where we’re playing here [in Microsoft's recent xCloud demonstration], the ping to our data center is less than three milliseconds."
So will T-Mobile be able to support those kinds of parameters on its mobile network? That largely depends on a wide variety of factors, such as what devices customers are using on its network, how close they are to a T-Mobile tower, what kind of backhaul that tower has, and other issues. But, according to a recent report by OpenSignal, T-Mobile's LTE network provided average nationwide download speeds of 21.9Mbit/s and latency of 59.4 ms.
Meaning, T-Mobile's 30Mbit/s download speeds appear in range of Project xCloud's 10Mbit/s requirements, but its latency of around 60 ms is nowhere near the 3 ms that Microsoft used in a recent demonstration.
That said, Microsoft is not only one of the world's biggest video game companies, it's also one of the biggest cloud computing providers. And if Project xCloud is a "multi-year journey," carriers including T-Mobile may well get there at some point. And 5G could potentially help.