Pixels & Bits:  Internet Bandwidth:  What it means to a gamer.

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posted 1/8/2013 by Sean Cahill
other articles by Sean Cahill
Platforms: Multiple
Welcome to Pixels & Bits, where the staff at Gaming Nexus will take a weekly look at the impact of audio and video products (as well as related gear) that enhances the gaming experience.  In this serialized article, we will discuss audio and video products, accessories and opinions on how these work within the confines of the gaming experience.  In this week’s article, Sean covers the many ranges of internet bandwidth by service providers and what each one has to offer.
 
It’s amazing to think just how much the gaming industry revolves around online play, nowadays. I always make a joke to younger gamers that, when I was a kid, I had to actually be in the same room with someone if I wanted to play a game with them.  Now, internet play rules the roost when it comes to multiplayer.  It isn’t just about competition, either.  Many games are allowing gamers to do campaigns with their friends over an internet connection, which only creates a higher need for fast connections with as little latency as possible.  Because of the high needs for online play, this really comes down to reliability of a connection and the speed it offers.
 
Internet Service Providers
 While there are many providers throughout the country, I feel as though there are five primary companies that are the largest and stand out above the rest:  Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, AT&T U-Verse, and Verizon FIOS.  Because of FCC regulations against monopolization, most gamers in large markets will have at least two companies to choose from in their area.  Some markets are largely dominated by one over the others, such as Comcast in the Chicagoland area and Verizon FIOS in the Boston area.  While provider-choice simply comes down to personal preference, what a provider can actually give a gamer is what is important.  First and foremost, let’s actually breakdown what to look for.
 
Downstream, Upstream, and Latency
 Simply put, Downstream Speed is the maximum amount of speed that someone can download information from the internet.  This number usually gets the most advertising from providers due to the fact that this is probably the most important number that one has to lock into.  Upstream is the reverse.  It is how fast information is sent out of your modem.  When it comes to gaming, the combination of these two is what provides the environment for a gamer online.  Having lower speeds with both of these numbers will increase the latency that one experiences, which is often referred to as lag time.  The more information that needs to be processed, the higher the chance of latency while playing a game online.

 
Why is this important?
Those three items mean the world to gamers for online play.  For example, playing any game that requires a heavy amount of traffic is going to require a solid connection.  For the Call of Duty players out there, think about how many things are going on during a multiplayer match.  There are sixteen players that are trying to shoot each other, receive their ordinance, deploy said ordinance, and still have to keep up with their surroundings.  That requires a ridiculous amount of transferring back and forth between the game’s server and the consoles that are attached to the match.
 
I’ve heard a common argument from some people online that the belief is that the host takes on much of the burden in a match.  This is somewhat true, and is broken down a bit differently.  Case in point:  In every online match, no matter the game, a host is chosen out of all of the players.  The host will be picked based on the lowest amount of latency and the highest quality of connection.  When the host gets cut off, the match automatically ends or pauses to change hosts.  Most gamers who have played online know this feeling all too well if the host isn’t a very good player and decides to quit in the middle of a match.  However, it doesn’t all fall on the host.  Yes, a bad host can truly affect gameplay, but players around a gamer with a bad connection can still have a great experience (as well as a huge advantage) in the same match.  With Xbox Live and the Playstation Network really shoring up their servers lately and the anticipation of the next line of systems, one can only imagine that online play will get stronger.
 
 
What speeds should I look for?
Thanks to the true explosion of internet providers, these choices are getting to be much easier.  Internet speeds in large markets have a very wide range and have price ranges for just about every gamer out there.  It all depends on the amount of use and how many devices are used since that bandwidth that’s guaranteed has to be split out if more than one person is using a connected device at the same time.
 
For those who are living in a single-gamer home, I believe the best recommendation is to look for 10 to 15 Mb/s as a download speed and at least 1 Mb/s upload.  These speeds will provide a very steady connection with little latency, so long as the only device being used at the time of the game is the console itself.  If there are multiple gamers in the household, look for the higher downstream speeds, certainly, but make sure the upload speed gets bumped up as well.  That upload speed often gets overlooked as, remember, it isn’t just about downloading information.  It’s about getting it to the server as well.
 
 
What do providers offer?
It’s impossible to go through every provider out there.  Because of this, I’ve limited the breakdown to, as previously mentioned, five of the largest providers in the country.  Many of these names will be familiar and there’s a good chance that one of them is your current provider.
 
 
Internet Service Provider
 
 
Slowest Speeds
 
Fastest Speeds
 
Range of cost
 
Best value
Comcast Xfinity 20 Mb/s Down
4 Mb/s Up
105 Mb/s Down
20 Mb/s Up
Currently $29.99 to $89.99 50 Down / 10 Up
$59.99/mo
Time Warner Cable 3 Mb/s Down
1 Mb/s Up
50 Mb/s Down
5 Mb/s Up
Currently $19.99 to $79.99 30 Down / 5 Up
$59.99 / mo
AT&T Uverse 3 Mb/s Down
1 Mb/s Up
24 Mb/s Down
2 Mb/s Up
Currently $19.99 to $44.99 18 Down / 2 Up
$34.95 / mo
Cox Internet 3 Mb/s Down
768 Kb/s Up
50 Mb/s Down
5 Mb/s Up
Currently $19.99 to $74.99 18 Down / 2 Up
$29.99
Verizon FiOS** 15 Mb/s Down
5 Mb/s Up
300 Mb/s Down
65 Mb/s Up
Currently $69.99 to $89.99 75 Down / 35 Up
$89.99

Note:  Verizon FiOS website does not list pricing for its top two tiers of 150/65 and 300/65.
 

The downside to this entire article, of course, is that there is still a large portion of the country that can’t even get what is known as “broadband” or “wideband” internet speeds.  Distribution of cable providers only stretches so far and, thus, some are limited to DSL as their internet provider, which does not provide for a very good experience online.
 
What’s in the future?
Cable Internet has been the status quo for the last decade.  Providers have been looking for the next step in increasing bandwidth for customers, and Google has already stepped up to the plate on the next generation of internet.  Currently in Kansas City, plans have been made to make the switch from cable to fiber in households, even though Verizon is technically doing this already, though not to the extent of Google.  Basically, Google is creating areas that feed off of one another in their distribution and offering it free of installation (in most cases) to get involved.  Google is promising Gigabit internet speeds to their users for $70/month and no construction fee.  The rest of the country will be focusing on this as the infrastructure and distribution gets built in Kansas City.  If Google manages to pull it off, internet speeds will take a massive jump if fiber becomes a true status quo.
 
 
Wrapping it all up
This article can truly be summed up in just a couple of sentences.  If you, as a gamer, wish to play online with little issue, it is in your best interest to be in a large market.  Yes, there are companies that do have a decent distribution into rural areas, but there aren’t many.  Living in a city practically guarantees a gamer to having a solid internet connection without suffering any latency issues.  Speed choice really comes down to cost and usage, and there are options for everyone.  Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case just as Xbox Live was really getting started up.  Now, in 2012, things have really changed for the better, and will only improve from here.


About the author
Sean Cahill has been on staff at Gaming Nexus since 2007.  He specializes in console gaming, primarily Xbox 360, as well as PC hardware, A/V, and car audio accessories with ten years of experience.  If you have a question or comment for Sean, please refer to the comments section below.
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