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Thoughts on Our National Broadband Strategy

The FCC is developing a comprehensive national broadband strategy. What could it mean for the games industry?

Hello, everyone.  This is the first in what I hope will be a series of blogs on broadband and telecommunications policy issues.  First, an important caveat:  Although I am a telecommunications lawyer, I will not plug my services or shill for clients.  That’s not the purpose of this board and not my style.  My purpose is informational and educational.  I hope that these thoughts will spark commentary and discussion among the community. 

Broadband is not a topic typically discussed within the game industry.  Sure, various companies offer hosting services, publishing and the like for online or mobile games and a few game developers speak of broadband as the “tip of the iceberg” in new gaming opportunities. 

But, I’ve been to a number of game conferences the past few years and, by and large, broadband policy just is not debated.  Yet, broadband – and, more generally, integrated communications capability – is ubiquitous in the game industry today.  Every MMOG integrates real-time multiplayer play and offers chat, IM, and VoIP to facilitate communication among players.  Although MMOGs must accommodate players using dial up modems, these games are intended for broadband users. 

Mobile games are built on wireless voice platforms and as the iPhone has proven, phones are uniquely suited for “play anywhere” games.  And, of course, social networking and web 2.0 are seemingly being integrated into everything from casual games to consoles.  So, if communication capabilities are already in games, I submit that broadband and wireless issues are a natural area for attention, especially among the CEOs and bus dev folks whose job is to think ahead to the thing after the next big thing.   

Against this backdrop I want to discuss news from the FCC on April 8.  At its monthly meeting, the FCC opened a proceeding to collect information for its National Broadband Plan.  (Link here:  http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-09-31A1.pdf).

As part of the stimulus package – a package that also designates over $7 billion for broadband grants and loans – Congress required the FCC to report by next February with a plan to ensure that every American has access to broadband capability.  The plan will set national goals for availability and establish broad principles for how the country could reach these goals. 

The FCC’s request is indeed far-reaching:  its key question is, “How to use broadband to advance consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation, economic growth and other national purposes.”

Wow! That’s a lot to place on the back of broadband.  All of our current ills are in there – the economy, homeland security, traffic congestion, health care and even global warming.  But while broadband cannot solve social problems, underlying these questions is a recognition that instantaneous connectivity is the defining feature of  21st century life, much as automobiles and electricity became the defining features that changed 20th century lives.  We are not far from looking at broadband as a utility – something that everyone has to have 24/7. 

For the games industry, the national debate on broadband is an opportunity.  The industry drives a lot of broadband adoption today and can do so in the future as well.  When the FCC asks how to define “broadband” for purposes of its plan, the industry should have a lot to say. 

I am encouraged by the fact that the FCC, for the first time I’ve seen, is seriously asking whether it should be more nuanced in its definition of “broadband.”  It asks, for example, whether latency should be included along with bandwidth as the measurement of broadband.  This could go a long way toward solving one of the persistent problems facing online games – inequality of play due to differences in broadband capabilities. 

Alternatively, the FCC asks whether to define broadband in terms of the ability to perform certain acts within a certain amount of time.  Traditionally, this has been stated as the ability to download a movie within x minutes, but what implications would follow if broadband were defined as the ability to conduct real-time voice and video collaboration among large groups of simultaneous users?  That would offer a boon to MMOGs, but also to online poker, video conferencing, distance learning and a whole host of other applications. 

Parties will have until June 8 to submit comments and July 7 to respond to other comments.  Microsoft and Google have been very active at the FCC recently and I will be looking for signs that this trend is expanding to other content providers as well.

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