'With net neutrality going away, these tactics will become more omnipresent.'
Image: Overwatch screenshot
If you've been playing games online for years, you've probably experienced the unique pain of high latency before. You’re in the middle of an Overwatch match, about to resurrect your team as Mercy and save the day. But then your lag spikes and the opposing team starts rubber-banding across your screen. When the connection smooths out you’re dead—just like your team—and they’re yelling at you for not doing your job.
Haste and Outfox are two services that want to fix that problem for gamers by selling them “tools...to optimize their connections.” The services promise lower latency and fewer lag spikes if you pay them to optimize how your traffic is routed across the internet. If this sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not wrong. It’s similar to the business model experts think might flourish if net neutrality dies.
The fight for net neutrality might be over. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai brought a vote before the committee today to rollback Obama-era regulations that ensure internet service providers have to treat all data across the internet equally. Despite public outcry, the repeal passed.
Some companies are prepared for net neutrality to die, and are already selling services meant to decrease latency in online games. “We’ve been fighting the net neutrality battle for years,” Sunday Yokubaitis—the president of Golden Frog, a company behind a variety of internet services including Vypr VPN—told me over the phone. “The monolithic power of the ISPs is depressing. We’re going to have to fight them in the trenches...and maybe wave the policy flag.”
Yokubaitis and his team at Goldenfrog have launched a new service called Outfox, a product for gamers meant to decrease their latency in online games. Yokubaitis and his team see a future where ISPs throttle the speeds of high bandwidth internet users such as gamers and streamers. He says he launched Outfox to help combat that. “Maybe you have to pay us more,” he said. “But we can make it faster.”
Latency in online games happen for a variety of reasons but one of the big reasons—and the one both services aim to fix—is data routing. Data on the internet is often routed across the country in a way that’s “good enough” but not often optimal. A League of Legends player in New York, for example, can be physically located right next to the game server, but for a variety of reasons his traffic can take detours spanning hundreds of miles across the internet before it reaches the server. This unnecessarily long trip increases latency.
Haste works a lot like Riot Direct—the solution League of Legends developer Riot created to deal with lag spikes. Riot worked with internet service providers and content delivery networks like Level 3 across the country to make sure League of Legends traffic was traveling to servers along optimize routes. Riot refers to it as its own "internet backbone." Haste claims it works similarly, but is application agnostic. Theoretically, it can improve the performance of any game or application.
In my own tests, Haste shaved milliseconds off my ping and lowered other network stats while playing a few games of Overwatch. I ran six different games back to back, all playing Mercy, three with Haste on and three with it off. Its UI tracks tracks latency, ping, and jitter but I used Blizzard’s internal network readouts for the test.
I got results, but none that I could feel in the game.
Playing Overwatch, I typically pull a ping of 55 to 60 milliseconds without Haste. Turning it on dropped my ping to a consistent 40ms. Haste seemed to have a greater effect on my latency, round trip time, and indication time. The several tests I ran with haste showed my latency numbers plummeting from the 60s to the teens, shaving precious milliseconds off my network activity.
Yokubaitis, meanwhile, told me that Outfox’s software “dynamically [looks] at what the fastest routes are. It effectively becomes a toll lane for your traffic.” He also acknowledged that toll lane was a loaded phrase, “because some of the big ISPs want to charge for a fast lane versus a slow lane.”
Haste CEO Adam Toll explained that his service works in three layers—improved physical infrastructure either owned or rented by Haste, proprietary network software that routes gaming traffic through that infrastructure, and a desktop application. “The physical network infrastructure means points of presence—a switch and some Linux boxes—on key places on the internet,” Toll said.
According to Toll, the company has bought or rented its own custom network infrastructure across the US. “We lease dedicated fiber optic capacity for some of our higher traffic long-haul routes,” he explained. Haste says it has paid for peering relationships with ISPs for efficient traffic paths through networks.
“When you launch a game, the Haste software recognizes you’ve done that and we take control over your network connection,” Toll said. “We take over your network card at the driver level. At that point, all of your game traffic—and only your game traffic—is diverted onto the Haste platform for routing to and from the game server for the duration of the game.”
All of these ideas sound good for people who want to pay for it, but speak to bigger problems in how we access the internet. “The fact that there seems to be a market for such a product is an indication of serious inter-connection problems between ISPs,” Thomas Lohinger told me via email. Lohinger is a non-residential fellow at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society as well as the executive director of Epicenter.works—an organization that fights for digital security and privacy rights.
Haste and Outfox’s mere existence points to problems with America’s internet infrastructure and the future of net neutrality. We live in a world where a private company has cut deals with ISPs to prioritize traffic, to the possible detriment of other users on the internet.
“The problem of efficient content delivery at the last mile is a problem throughout the world,” Molter—Outfox’s CTO—told me over the phone. “ISPs want to run their traffic in the most cost effective way. They’re happy with ‘good enough’ performance,” he said. “We’re aggressively capitalist here and those [ISPs] that have locked in control of their users because [the users] can’t switch to other providers will basically degrade certain kinds of traffic.”
Services that have popped up to prioritize gaming traffic—and the deals they have cut with ISPs—may soon become common in other sectors of the economy.
“With net neutrality going away, these tactics will become omnipresent,” Yokubaitis told me. Without net neutrality, there will be more CEOs such as Toll and Yokubaitis making bold claims about optimizing traffic and circumventing ISPs.
“Right now it’s a gaming optimization service,” Yokubaitis said. “We’re starting with gaming, but we think we can branch out with other services such as streaming.”
Outfox and Haste sell a solution to a problem we shouldn’t have in a free and open internet. “In a neutral internet there is no way around increasing network capacity as demand increases,” Lohinger told me. “But instead ISPs are monetising the scarcity of their network capacity and new, weird business models like this one emerge, where in effect a hidden cost is passed onto consumers who must pay for an additional service in order to get the connectivity they want from their ISPs."