Always On

I’m becoming increasingly aggravated by the tactics used by both the entertainment and telecom industries to pigeon hole the internet into both a necessity and, at the same time, “luxury”. It can’t be both. It’s either a phone line, or it’s a Rolls Royce.

Case in point. This week, in response to the impending announcement of the PS4 in two weeks, rumors are circulating about the next Xbox as well. While its being touted for it’s increased performance, a switch to BluRay and larger memory cache, the new Xbox is alleged to require an always on internet connection. There will be nothing to do “off line” anymore. The console will need to be connected and signed into XBL, which may or maynot be included with the console (my money is on ‘not’) just to log into the machine. Games will be sold as downloads or as one-time-use install disks with activation codes. Single player games, and campaign modes in multiplayer games will still require you to be connected, not just signed in. Before, the “sign in” process was local to the machine you were on. Now it’s rumored to be internet only. The implications of which are that you’d be “signed out” and the game would either pause or save/exit and be locally cached until the connection resumes.

I can’t possibly imagine how this is going to benefit gamers. In fact, I’ve personally chosen not to buy any games, PC or console, that are either activated on a single machine only, or that require constant internet connections to function. I didn’t purchase Diablo 3 for exactly this reason. Diablo, an traditionally single player dungeon crawling treasure hunt, paused and/or crashed completely in the event you were disconnected not from the internet, but just from Blizzards servers. On the same token, I’m not buying the new SimCity for the same reason. You can’t honestly tell me I need to be connected to build a goddamn city!

So, if the machine needs to be “always on”, and you lose/disconnect/discontinue internet service/move/change services, the games you BOUGHT are unplayable, completely and totally, until a new connection is established? What exactly did I buy? The privilege of playing temporarily? No, the law would actually disagree with this one. Since a game is a “thing” and you’re purchasing it with the expectation that it will work, the law actually says it’s required to do so. Not only in certain circumstances either. Google “reasonable expectation” under “contract law, and, also see “First Sale Doctrine” in regards to “ownership rights” . Common law states that a customer has the right to expect that the goods or services they’re purchasing will work. Any EULA you read or sign will NEVER mention this, but those common tenets supersede all those quasi-legal agreements in court. The main reason companies keep using them is because, quite frankly, they have more lawyers than you do. It would be a bitch to fight, and prove, and would cost you considerable time and money, and they know that.

But, this isn’t about the games, this is about the internet.

As we, the people, let more and more companies get away with this “always on” bullshit, the strain on internet connections becomes more and more apparent. What’s worse is that American broadband continues to escalate in price while speeds remain flat. A good portion of the country is without reliable broadband in general. So, to the child of a farmer in very rural Idaho, who’s parents saved all year for the new Xbox for him, but who don’t have the money for a pricy internet connection… yeah, guess who just bought a $400 brick? The kicker is that for years the telecom industry has asked for billions of dollar to improve the internet infrastructure across the country, and while speeds have generally increased over the last decade, the majority of the money was used to improve backbones and datacenters (not that that’s a bad thing). People looking for a boost to the “end of the street” speeds in their own neighborhoods are still waiting.

I blame the FCC mostly. In 2002 the FCC declared broadband to be an “information technology” and not a “telecommunication technology”. Meaning, the internet, in general, was more like a service (like AOL) than it was like a phone line, or (and here’s the kicker) a way to communicate. Phone companies have to compete for your business even though the lines are the same: aka a utility. Internet providers don’t. Here you have two choices, cable TV providers sending internet traffic over cable lines, or phone companies, sending traffic over old voice lines. (Sure, there are fiber connections out there, and various other things, but we’re talking in general terms) If it was classified as a utility, like power or phone, the companies that own the infrastructure would be required, by law, to resell that access on the wholesale market. Meaning independent internet providers could flourish and compete.

To make matters worse, we’re falling behind. This year, in South Korea, people will have access to Internet speeds that are roughly 200x faster than our standard broadband AND for roughly $27 USD. Arguments could be made that countries like that are “smaller” and easier to network, but population density would bring it’s own problems, like network congestion, yet they seem to be able to overcome these easily. Think it’s only small Asian countries? Finland made it a legal right of the people to have a broadband connection, three years ago in 2010!!! They expect to increase the speed of it to 15mb, per citizen, by 2015.

So, the media companies have convinced us that the internet is a necessity, that it needs to be on, that it needs to be a part of our lives. The service providers however, convince us that it’s “really expensive” and “really hard” to get everyone a highspeed connection. If only they had more time, if only they had more money.

We’re quickly approaching the tipping point. The average price for broadband in the US is $40. My own personal connection is $60. If costs continue to rise, and we have limited choices (and in some parts of the country, no choices) for providers, there’s nothing stopping the cost and the speed from falling right over the edge. $120 a month for basic service? Don’t think it could happen? Hmmm. How much do you pay for TV at the moment? How many cable providers do you have in your area? Yeah. I thought so. It’s coming. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.