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ADSL for gamers

Article - unravelling the confusion behind ADSL for gamers in the UK

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

ADSL in this country has hardly been a rollercoaster, and if it has it's been a really badly designed rollercoaster with stupidly long, flat sections and near vertical slopes to overcome. BT have screwed it up, claiming first that the network infrastructure was insufficient to support the technology, before giving up on that one and deciding to propose that actually it was a lack of eager triallists that was to blame for the delays. With all this out of the way and BT reprimanded by the frequently offbeat industry watchdog Oftel, the only thing that stands between the average punter and ADSL is the conversion of the local BT exchange, a process that is taking place up and down the land.


The foremost question which you need to ask is whether or not your local exchange has been updated to support the new technology yet. The best way to find out seems to be by using the BT checking service, which take your phone number or postcode and establishes your readiness. If you're not satisfied with the result, which queries BT's database of exchange conversions (for instance mine claims that my local exchange will be converted at the end of September 2000), then you can use a more specialized service from one of the ADSL service providers. Once you are satisfied, all that's left is to decide which package you want, and how you want it configured. You see, ADSL (short for "Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line") comes in various forms. Because it's asymmetrical, the maximum download and upload speeds differ greatly. For instance, the home user package which uses a USB adapter to connect you up gives you 512Kbps down (equivalent to 50 or 60Kb every second), but only 256Kbps up. This seems to be the norm for all packages, with some offering outrageous incoming bandwidth whilst restricting the outgoing a fair bit. But just which package is best from the gamer's perspective? The business options offer as much as 2Mbps, approximately 250Kb every second! As much as it may seem logical for that to provide the best online performance, it doesn't necessarily work that way...


Gaming is reliant not on bandwidth but on latency. While you may be able to download at 200Kb/s, your performance in games like Quake 3 may leave a lot to be desired, because it takes too long for the data to be processed back and forth betwixt server and client. The USB home user package has been specifically catered with latency problems in mind, and as such it may provide good gaming performance. At the price (approximately £50 setup and £30-50 per month thereafter) it doesn't come too cheap, but if you have seen the business options price list you will be thankful. Serious gamers will already be using ISDN or even a leased line from BT for their gaming, and if like me you are already experiencing perfectly good gaming performance you may turn around and quite rightly wonder just how you'll benefit from such a move. From a financial standpoint the argument is somewhat blurred. While ISDN use can incur normal per-minute phone charges, most people are now using free off-peak access for gaming, and indeed in December BT intend to introduce a scheme of free local calls. Similarly, ISP costs are now around £10 per month, a far cry from what they once were. In fact, ADSL will probably cost you more than ISDN or your modem does already. The real key lies in the fact that ADSL is an always-on service. There are no connection dialogues, you turn on the PC and you are online; for once it is that simple.

Gaming in Twos

In the average user's mind, the two big issues currently surrounding ADSL relate to contention ratios and security. Contention ratios are difficult to understand and often make little sense. Figures like 50:1 have been batted around without any real explanation, so it makes sense to explain them. The truth is that although BT suspect multiple ADSL owners on the same circuit will not cut into one another's bandwidth, the possibility is there, but we won't know fully until the service is widely used. But for the benefit of those who want to know, contention ratios work like this. Say you have 2Mbps connection; if you put four users with 512Kbps each on it, that's 1:1 contention - they should always have access to their full 512Kbps, barring downtime on the line as a whole. BT are working on the assumption that people won't be using their entire bandwidth allocation the whole time, so if you had sixteen users you could put them all on the 2Mbps line at a 4:1 contention ratio, and hopefully get away with it. If all of them attempt to use every byte of bandwidth simultaneously though, they will likely all be shunted down to as little as 128Kbps. The quality of the routing equipment is important here as well; if it's good, the distribution will be fairly even. If it's not, it may be a little lopsided depending on the luck of the draw. With 50:1 contention on a 512Kbps connection, you could theoretically drop to incredibly low speeds, but in practice you won't, unless you live near some incredibly busy net addicts.


The other issue I mentioned is security. With a fixed IP address (the number designated to your system through which all other systems interface with you) and a permanent connection, your PC is a very possible target for trigger-happy hackers the world over. With the business solutions the router may include a built in firewall, and if not, the server through which all the connections are routed will most likely do the job for them, protecting the Internet-browsing clientele. But with home-user ADSL, you are open. Frankly, this is a bit of a mess at the moment. When asked about it, one avid gamer with a bit of technical bonce chimed back that "you have to run your own firewall if you don't want to be f****d over". At the point of ordering the service, you should most certainly inquire as to how you are being protected. At the moment, the main PC connected to ADSL will be the target, as any other networked clients sharing the connection are protected by NAT, or Network Address Translation, a system that masks the individual IP addresses of client PCs to help protect them from unsolicited incoming requests for data. The best way to protect yourself as far as we see it though is to make use of a firewall. This is quite extreme, but the way in which firewalls work means that only data that has been requested is returned. So in other words, if some wily hacker attempts to get himself in by bombarding you with masked requests and other cunning salvos of data, the firewall will simply ignore them since nobody under its jurisdiction requested them.


British gamers have been given a torrid time lately with regard to the high-bandwidth connections, and the hurt doesn't look like letting up any time soon. The supposedly home-user-supportive USB package may offer great gaming performance, but just how secure will it be, and how often will you notice a severe dent in your incoming bandwidth due to high contention ratios? As far as we're concerned, the best package for gamers is still the USB option, regardless of the possible problems, but if you're an ISDN user and don't find yourself wanting for faster downloads too often, you might just as well stick with that.

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