My Docsis 3.1 cable modem from Comcast’s Xfinity can deliver 400 megabits a second to my home. That’s pretty darn fast for multiplayer gaming, and I rarely have any big troubles getting online to play. But the cable lines can only send bits upstream into the network at a rate of 9 megabits a second. In a world of streaming, that’s not really going to cut it.
Maybe this is where 5G wireless networks will provide the answer. In the “last mile” connection to homes, wireless networks could provide connectivity at broadband speeds, both upstream and downstream. And that could have an impact on the kind of games we play and the network service providers that we connect to in order to play those games.
Google is likely to be a big new player in this space with its Stadia cloud gaming platform, and we’ll see whether 5G will ultimately be a factor in delivering cloud gaming. I talked with Spandan Mahapatra, global head of the business solutions unit at Tata Consultancy Services, about this possibility.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: What’s your view on how 5G is going to change gaming?
Spandan Mahapatra: If you analyze the space — call it cloud-based and on-prem-based — what enterprise customers saw in the app world, the on-prem to cloud transformation journey around software as a service (SaaS) applications, all the elements are now right at the cusp of that level of transformation and disruption for the gaming world.
The biggest problem with gaming is that shelf life is continuing to drop. Compared to what it was years back, now that shelf life has significantly changed. The ability to learn and apply AI in a continuous stream, looking at trends in real time, all of that is a big factor that was pretty much a fixed constraint with the network. Now, you bring in that element and 5G becomes relevant. That’s the first piece around 5G, plus the whole cloud play, which is going to significantly offer new opportunities for the old gaming business.
There’s another element that I think is also critical. Any time gaming, any place, any device, any network, that is becoming a possibility. There’s something I call socially responsible gaming. I cover the software services market as well, and all the businesses that consume software. High tech has a trust element. Everyone is trying to become a trust-based business. The gamers, the stakeholders around the gaming business — the parents, the people that are there from an education standpoint, these are all stakeholders.
Then you have enterprise businesses that are also trying to gamify application processes, so that when users — Gen Z, Gen Y, all the millennials, everyone who is accessing application platforms — expect a level of simplified user experience, frictionless transactions. It’s a blurred line between the gaming experience and the user experience.
From that perspective comes socially responsible gaming, in terms of progression of people, and also people thinking of gaming in a positive way. There are two factions there as far as people — I won’t go into a specific discussion about gaming-based addiction, but I think you understand that there is some responsibility around being socially responsible. That’s an element where 5G is also critical, because of the whole idea around slicing and the ability to control network. All of that element is now possible. That’s another opportunity where some of the players can differentiate themselves in terms of value to gamers and other social aspects, where users do not show different social behavior because of a particular affection for a particular gaming experience.
To summarize, the technology attributes around 5G — the specifications are obviously evolving, but the technology attributes around 5G will support all the cloud-based gaming players. The user experience will be much more integrated, much more context-aware. The whole mixed reality piece of it is going to be realized with 5G. And the final part of it is responsible gaming. That will be leveraged out of this.
GamesBeat: One of the challenges facing Google and its Stadia service is that it’s going to have to make this last-mile connection, from the controller in the player’s hands to the Google network. Does 5G have to play a role in that, or can that be done more simply through your cable or DSL network? Their goal is to minimize the number of hops that happen between service providers, so that they get to the Google backbone as quickly as possible. But since they’re not a last-mile service provider, at least not in a big way, I wonder how that happens.
Mahapatra: It’s a valid question. This particular area is going to be a little different. If you remember the initial wave of Netflix, that had similar challenges. It’s not like-to-like, but they had a closer challenge with their media streaming platform and the Prana architecture that they brought into play in terms of communications. Games services have a dependency on Google’s overall network, the data centers and everything else in play. But we feel that in the coming days, there will be better partnerships with some of the other players.
I’m hesitant to name a particular player. You can make your own guesses. But just like what Apple did with AT&T in the initial wave of the iPhone, there will be a more tight coupling with one or more players. Comcast Xfinity has their interaction that’s already happening in the device world. They’re becoming very software-centric now. They have an average 250Mbps across the board. There’s a potential now to form those partnerships. Google Fiber isn’t everywhere. That’s an area where they will look to partner with the service providers.
GamesBeat: For 5G and gaming in the home, do you see a broader solution? Are 5G routers going to accomplish something that we don’t have today?
Mahapatra: The whole concept of additional routing solutions, the mesh network concept, and the boost network concepts that have already been in play for traditional solutions are manifesting. All the players now are providing state of the art routers as a service model. Consumers are upgrading that service earlier. Consumers used to always buy Netgear and other routers for custom solutions at home.
If you’re tracking it, the players’ routers are being consumed by users primarily because of a very quick upgrade cycle. Also, the ability to manage the network better. The routers that are in homes today — just like you have the concept of multiple smaller devices like the digital assistants, whether it’s Alexa or Google, all of them have a federated mesh. Within the home itself, within the enterprise itself, there will be a federated router structure for different types of establishments. There will be different models in apartment communities or mid- to large-sized homes. Also, the network in the enterprise.
We’ll see a new generation of devices which will have different patterns in terms of supporting the whole supply chain. There will be no weak link that network in terms of supporting an end to end consistent experience for the users. Otherwise you’ll have, say, a 250 on-air ballpark umbrella, but you have 75 or 50 in a specific spot. You don’t want that going back and forth and becoming a customer experience issue with each user. That relates to the high fidelity that will be a challenge going forward. That’s something that’s going to manifest itself.
The CSPs will bear the burden. They’ve invested quite a lot in this in terms of the core infrastructure. As far as the last-mile infrastructure, that will be shared by the device makers, by the electronics players, and also with a shared revenue model. Some people are buying directly from the manufacturers of the gear. There will be large volume contracts that they will sign, and that will make it easy for the consumer to pay $9.99 per month or whatever the number is to get a similar user experience. Xfinity is offering — I think it’s $9.99 or $13.99 for a high-end router. Something similar could be provided by all the CSPs, with a cycle where they continuously upgrade the device.
GamesBeat: Do you see something like the cable company providing the high speed to the home, and then the 5G router providing high speed wireless throughout the home, so that gamers can play in the cloud? Or do you see gamers accessing 5G and then 5G router accessing some other network than the cable network to essentially bypass that network? Do you think either of those models is going to happen more?
Mahapatra: It’s a key question right now. It’s a hybrid model. The players that are invested on the infrastructure side, which is the delivery of service into the home, for them, they’ll try to protect the complete delivery of that pipe into the home. You’ll get that landing in the home, and they’ll expect, just like the hotspots that they’re trying to promote — your users will subscribe to the hotspots to get a similar experience. That’s the large players. That model will continue down the line. When they say they’re offering 5G services, they’re not really offering it on the mobile device. They’re offering it through the pipe.
That’s part one. Part two is what you also asked about. There will be other upstarts, which will try to disrupt the larger players who have done traditional investments to get on the network. Their proposition will be, wherever you are, whether you’re changing your location, you’ll have a similar experience at a lower price point. There are two elements there. One, what’s the cost to maintain and upgrade and continuously innovate infrastructure? It’s an evolving specification, as you know. The second one is, what’s the price point at which you’ll be able to not only acquire, but sustain your customer base without significant churn? How do you control your operating costs?
These two elements will determine where the seesaw will land. But to your question, it’s going to be a hybrid. It’s going to be both. That’s where the innovation will continue, on both tracks. For example, the Verizon 5G home broadband — Verizon has been very clear on the specification and what is available. They’ve been careful with their marketing speak. All of that is coming in. From there on, they’re going to expect more user affinity to that network.