Two years ago the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules went into effect, giving consumers what was supposed to be a ‘free and open’ internet.

Unfortunately, the future of the FCC’s Open Internet Order (OIO) is in jeopardy and this is bad news for game developers.

What ‘net neutrality’ means

The primary goal of net neutrality is to ensure that no single U.S. internet service provider can arbitrarily decide to slow down (or speed up) a consumer’s access to/from specific content providers — regardless of the content or where in the world the content is coming from.

In 2009 the FCC started the process that would eventually make this goal a reality and they were immediately met with resistance by many cable companies, wireless providers, and lobbying groups.

Many court battles, protests, and 4 million public comments on their website later, the FCC was able to reclassify ISPs as a “telecommunications service” and the Open Internet Order was enacted in 2015. [For a more in-depth timeline of events check out http://whatisnetneutrality.org/timeline.]

Essentially, by classifying high-speed internet services under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, U.S. wired and wireless broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, and Verizon were prohibited from prioritizing traffic from some sources over others.

For example, Comcast and Time Warner are part of a group of companies who own Hulu, a streaming service that competes with Netflix. Without the OIO in place, their broadband divisions could throttle the connection speeds to Netflix resulting in a poor streaming service for their subscribers. This would give those consumers an extra incentive to make the switch to Hulu which would directly benefit Comcast and Time Warner’s bottom line!

Does that sound too far-fetched to be true? Then read this report from Time that goes over the deal Netflix made with Comcast pre-Open Internet Order to pay them to make sure their subscribers “receive reliable, high-speed streaming service from the online video giant for years to come.”

The Open Internet is under attack, again

Telecom companies and associations fought hard to overturn the Open Internet Order, but even though the courts stood by the FCC’s Open Internet rules, many of those same organizations have continued to lobby against these rules to try and get them overturned.

This year they got their first big break when President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the FCC.

Pai, who has sided with ISPs in the net neutrality debate, quickly got to work and started the following multi-stage process of rolling back the current rules:

  • April 26: The Chairman announced he was submitting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to accomplish that rollback to be voted on by the commission in May. An early proposal draft was published on the FCC site.
  • April 27-May 17: The filing draft was open to the public for comments. Although the site crashes multiple times (some attribute this to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight revisit of this issue) the FCC did not push back their meeting and extend the deadline to file comments.
  • May 18: The FCC commission votes to approve the NPRM draft which opened the filing back up for public feedback.
  • May 18-August 16: The final proposal is published and the public is now able to comment again to provide feedback to the FCC ahead of the final vote.
  • TBD: The FCC will make a final vote on whether or not to enact the NPRM. The full implementation of those new rules could potentially happen as early as October 2017.

Why this matters to game developers

When you take into account all the ways games are made and played, and that any traffic or content – US-hosted or otherwise – could get prioritized there’s no doubt this issue matters to game developers and the industry as a whole.

While there’s a lot of items and legalese tossed into this new NPRM, the two biggest things you need to understand about what this does are:

  1. It will completely reverse the re-classification of wired and wireless internet service providers under Title II.
  2. It will “reinstate the determination that mobile broadband Internet access service is not a commercial mobile service.”

Considering that mobile wireless and home broadband provider Verizon already stated in court the OIO is the one thing preventing them from ‘exploring those commercial arrangements,’ if these changes happen here are just some of the scenarios in how this could affect you:

  • Cloud Development Services: Are your teams managing your project using Trello or communicating via Slack? Now imagine that service to Trello was suddenly throttled in favor of JIRA or Skype instead of Slack – team productivity drops and it’s harder to do your job.
  • Platforms: Do you only make mobile games for Android? What would you do if traffic to all things Apple becomes so prioritized over Google that consumers jump ship and your primary source of revenue dries up?
  • Game Back-End Online Services: Does your game’s back-end rely on services like Amazon Web Services? What happens if the major ISPs strike a deal and suddenly AWS competitors like Google or Microsoft Azure and AWS starts charging more so they can pay to stay on equal footing – can you afford that?
  • Online-Based Games: Are you an indie who relies on players being ‘always online’ to play your games? If your game’s speed suddenly drops to a snail’s pace it’s a good bet you won’t have the funds to fight the legal battles like Riot is taking on to get things fixed.
  • Download Speeds: Every night thousands of US players log on around the same time to download new games or grab the latest patch before their raid starts. If the ISPs throttled speeds to the point that nothing worked most gamers would initially assume you’re the one to blame! Will they believe you when you say it’s not your fault or walk away?
  • Community Channels: Let’s say your fans primarily engage with you on Twitter but suddenly Facebook gets the fast lane and Twitter folds. Will you be able to find and re-engage those fans and keep the buzz going?

Any one of the above items can put your job, your project, or even your company at risk as it will make it tougher to stay sustainable and successful.

While it may seem like some of those scenarios won’t happen anytime soon, or at all, do you want to take that risk? Can you afford to make the changes necessary to survive if they do happen?

Where to go from here

There is a lot more to this issue than can be covered in this one piece, but the two main things you can do are:

  1. Keep an eye out on here and other key sites – like the Electronic Frontier Foundation – to make sure you stay up-to-date with what is happening and how it may affect you.
  2. Consider speaking up and encourage your friends and colleagues to speak up too.

Interested in filing a comment on the FCC’s site? Last Week Tonight created a great shortcut to the right docket page at gofccyourself.com, then just click on Express and comment away!

Not sure what to say? Feel free to borrow and personalize one of my comment templates that were specifically created for game developers and let your voice be heard.

Don’t forget: The fight is not over and this is just one of many things altering the landscape that is game development. Keep track of what is going on, plan accordingly, and good luck!

Sheri Rubin, independent game developer and founder of Design Direct Deliver, comes to the gaming table with over 20 years’ experience and more than 40 game credits to her name

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®'s Game Dev program.