Jun 062018
 

Recently, a stoush erupted between NBN chief executive Bill Morrow and the gaming community over whether “gamers” were “causing” the congestion issues experienced on fixed-wireless broadband links.

The ABC published this chart, comparing the average transfer rate, of various games, to the average transfer rate seen watching various movies.  It’s an interesting chart, but I think it completely misses the point.

One thing that raw download speeds miss, is latency.

Multimedia is hard real-time, however unless you’re doing a two-way video or voice call, a few seconds of latency is not going to bother you. Your playback device can buffer several seconds worth of movie to feed to your video and sound devices and keep their buffers fed. No problem.

If those buffers aren’t kept topped up, you get break-up in your audio and the video “freezes” momentarily, loosing the illusion of animation. So long as the data is received over the Internet link, passed to the decoder to be converted to raw video frames and audio samples, and stuffed into the relevant buffers in time, it all runs smoothly. Pre-recorded material makes this dead easy (by comparison). Uni-directional live streams are a bit more tricky, but again you can put up with quite a bit of latency.

Radio stations often have about 300-500ms of latency … just listen to the echo effect when a caller rings up with a radio on in the background, if it were truly live, it would howl like a PA microphone!

It’s two-way traffic that’s the challenge.

Imagine if, when typing an email… it was 5 seconds before the letters you just typed showed up. Or if you moved the mouse, it took 3 seconds before it registered that you had moved. If someone were just observing the screen (unaware of when the keystrokes/mouse clicks had been entered), they’d think the user was drunk!

And yes, I have personally experienced such links… type something, then go wait 30 seconds before hitting the ENTER key, or if you spot a mistake, count up the number of backspaces or cursor movements you need to type, then wait for the cursor to reach that spot before you make your correction. It’s frustrating!

Now consider online gaming, where reaction time requirements are akin to driving a race car. One false move, and suddenly your opposition has shot you, or they’ve successfully dodged your virtual bullet.

Carrier pigeons carrying MicroSD cards (which reach 128GB capacity these days) could actually outperform NBN in many places for raw data throughput. However, if the results from the Bergen Linux User’s Group experiments are anything to go by, you can expect a latency measured in hours. (Their ping log shows the round-trip-time to be about 53 minutes in the best case.)

The movie stream will be sending many large packets at a mostly regular rate. The video game will be sending lots of tiny packets that Must Be Delivered Right Now!

I think it naïve to directly compare the two in the manner these graphs simply due to the nature of the types of traffic involved. Video/VoIP calling would be a better metric, since a 100ms delay in a telephone conversation will have both parties verbally tripping over each other.

Tele-medicine is touted as one of the up-and-comming technologies, but for a surgeon to remotely operate on a patient, they need that robotic arm to respond right now, not in 30 seconds time.  It may not be a lot of data to say “rotate 2°”, or “move forward 500µm”, but it needs to get there quickly, and the feedback from said movement arrive back quickly if the patient is going to live.

The sooner we stop ignoring this elephant in the room, the better off we’ll all be.