Should Telcos be Paid for Gaming Traffic?

gaming traffic

Optus complains about network spikes for video games

Telcos are blaming gamers for frequent network spikes during peak hours. An Optus executive has gone on record to suggest that game manufacturers and other streaming platforms should contribute to network infrastructure.

Andrew Sheridan, head of regulatory and public affairs at Optus, stated that such contributions will be in the “long-term interest of Australian consumers and businesses”.

As gaming companies continue to improve their games, the network requirements to stream them become higher. Telcos believe that because the Internet has become an integral part of many games, manufacturers should be willing to pay to make it better.

How COVID-19 contributed to more network traffic

Lockdowns and shuttered businesses became the norm in Australia during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This meant more Australians stayed home with a lot more time of their hands.

We saw spikes in voice calls, leading to congestion and network outages on the Telstra and Optus networks in March of last year. And this increase wasn’t unique to Australia — an i3forum Insights study indicated that March saw a 20 percent year-on-year increase in voice calls globally, correlating with most stay-at-home measures around the world.

But the spike in voice calls is just one area of COVID-19 effects. There were also increased usage in smart devices and computers, as well as video games, leading to increased data demands. 

Modern games and streaming devices use a lot of data

The old days of arcades and simple computer games are long gone. Today, games typically come with an online component, where gamers can play opponents across the globe, thanks to the Internet.

Games like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto have become a staple for gamers, and such games require frequent updates to improve gameplay and keep gamers interested.

While streaming games online takes some data, that isn’t the main data gulper. Downloading the updates for the games (and even the games themselves) is where the bulk of data consumption comes in.

Telcos complain that the updates are quite frequent, meaning the data demand and spikes come quite often. Also, because updates are available to all gamers once released, they might get downloaded by millions of gamers around the same time, causing even larger spikes.

For instance, on all 10 of Telstra’s largest traffic spike days last year, a major Call of Duty or Fortnite update was released. In fact, the largest spike was on the day Call of Duty’s fifth season was released.

Why should you care?

Telcos sell data to consumers for cash, so none of it is free. So as a consumer, it’s reasonable to ask why a telco would complain about your usage of a service you have already paid for.

After all, data is not cheap, and with the vast majority of Australians owning a smart device, telcos are definitely getting enough money from the populace to maintain the network infrastructure. So why are telcos asking gaming manufacturers and streaming platforms for financial contributions?

According to Mr. Sheridan, your data bill is essentially subsidising a gamers data usage. In other words, the average user only consumes a fraction of the data a gamer consumes, yet pays the same bill. As a result, your bill and less data usage makes up for the gamer’s high data usage.

Final words – Telcos should stick to their role

The argument that the average Internet user is subsidising heavy gamers and streamers is a good one. However, it’s hard to imagine this resulting in increased data bills because data costs have consistently reduced over the years, even while games have improved and increased their internet demands.

Instead, what this seems to be is simply a case of telcos regretting their role in the gaming and streaming process. For the last 10 years, phone companies have been treated like a ‘dumb pipe’ — simply there as a means to pass data from the cloud to the consumer. Game manufacturers and streaming platforms pass their data to consumers with hardly any costs, while telcos stand by and build the infrastructure needed to make that possible as gaming demands continue to grow. Telcos have never found a way out of this conundrum, and so they search for ways to make it stop.

But the reality remains that consumers pay for the data they use, and telcos set the costs that consumers pay. With millions of subscribers in Australia, it’s difficult to empathise with telcos on any financially motivated complaint.

Rather than beg for something they will never get, perhaps telcos could find better solutions to traffic spikes, such as looking at alternatives like satellite communications networks to ease the burden on existing infrastructure.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.