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How Gamers Powered Super-Fast Internet Abroad


Technology

How Gamers Powered Super-Fast Internet Abroad

Dragos Sas, a software developer based in the historic Romanian city of Cluj, recalls childhood days of hauling PCs and hefty CRT monitors to and from friends’ homes for gaming sessions. Back then, dialup was the only way to get online. But when cable internet came to Romania, Sas and his friends didn’t need to…

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Dragos Sas, a software developer based in the historic Romanian city of Cluj, recalls childhood days of hauling PCs and hefty CRT monitors to and from friends’ homes for gaming sessions. Back then, dialup was the only way to get online. But when cable internet came to Romania, Sas and his friends didn’t need to lug heavy computers between buildings anymore. “We started making private LANs between apartment blocks, pulling cables through balconies,” he says, referring to local area networks, a common practice that spread through post-communist Romania in the 1990s. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were laying the foundation for one of the best broadband networks in the world.

Today, Romania has among the highest broadband speeds of any country, as well as the lowest latency, a vital factor for gamers who play networked games that demand a reliable online connection with low ping, the time it takes for one computer to send a signal to another on the same network. Low latency and low ping are crucial in multiplayer games like first-person shooters and massively multiplayer online role-playing games for quick communication and reaction times. For competitive players, the slightest moment of lag can make the difference between a win or loss.

On average, the countries with the fastest internet—Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Romania—share similar DNA that includes strategic government planning for fiberoptic cables or national broadband networks. But Singapore and Romania have another historical commonality: a passionate demographic of gamers who wanted better connectivity, and whose combined efforts have helped to elevate internet infrastructure for the general public.

“I remember connecting to the internet every night after everyone went to bed, when I was sure the phone line was not going to be used by anyone,” says Tudor Ciuleanu, CEO of software company Rebel Dot, reflecting on his old dialup connection in 1997. As networked gaming grew in Romania, Ciuleanu and his childhood friend George Carstocea got creative, despite living in different apartment blocks separated by a road and a parking lot. “We connected our apartments through a coaxial cable using BNC connectors,” he says.

Soon, friends in neighboring apartments wanted in on the private network. “After having our connection up and running we extended it to a third block,” Ciuleanu says. “We were all serially connected, and the network had a terminator at each end. It was very unstable as any cable fault or missing terminator [would take] down the whole network. As soon as we had access to cable internet, we started sharing one subscription through our entire network.”

Ciuleanu wasn’t alone. He was one of countless Romanians who bound themselves together with intricate webs of cable. “This was the real deal,” says Szilveszster Pap, a technical director at Quantic Lab. “People, not just kids… connected their systems directly with 20, 30, 50 meters of cable in order to share music, movies, and games.” The government didn’t care about these homemade LANs—a trifling concern after the fall of communism in 1989—and most people were curious and enthusiastic about new technology. “I can’t remember if the authorities did something about that,” recalls Sas. “Only my mom, grounding me for putting a hole through the window.”

Over time, according to Ciuleanu, enterprising teenagers turned their homegrown networks into small internet providers, which created some fierce local competition. “In the end, large companies came and started uniting all these small networks to create our initial city-level infrastructure,” he says. “When this infrastructure had to be replaced, fiber was the standard, so now everyone runs fiber. We have gigabit internet subscriptions for US$10 a month.”

Today, Romania is ranked fourth in the world by Speedtest for average broadband speed—a sore point for traveling Romanians who grapple with slow internet in other countries. The United States sits in 11th position, despite having the top speed in the Americas. The world’s fastest internet hotspots, including Sweden, Taiwan, and the British dependency of Jersey, have surged ahead largely thanks to smart FTTP (fiber to the premises) initiatives by their respective governments. But at the top of Speedtest’s global index is Singapore, home of MyRepublic, one of the only gamer-centric ISPs in the world.

At the heart of MyRepublic is managing director Lawrence Chan, who once led Singapore’s biggest World of Warcraft guild. Ensconced in a MyRepublic meeting room decked out with SecretLab gaming chairs, Chan reflected on 11 years of playing the iconic MMORPG. He began with vanilla World of Warcaft, running 40-person raids and forging nonaggression pacts with other players on online forums. In college, Chan learned how to manage big personalities while raid leading. “I would get calls from investment bankers and lawyers in the middle of the day, begging me for a raid spot at night,” he says with a grin.

In the mid-2000s, Chan went into banking. “Back then, the ping could be ridiculous, to the point where it was unbearable,” he recalls. These were the days of subscription services to “ping optimizers,” which allowed users to download a program and pick a server with low ping, bypassing Singapore’s two main telecommunications companies at the time, Singtel and Starhub. “Those ping optimizers were very painful,” says Chan, “and they didn’t always solve the problem because the telcos would always choose the cheapest route.”

In 2011, Chan attended an investment talk by Malcolm Rodrigues, an ex-Starhub VP with big ideas for a new startup ISP. After meeting for drinks, Rodrigues presented an enticing offer. Chan already played games and knew the ins and outs of investment banking. Why not join him to design broadband for gamers? Eventually, Chan agreed, marking the birth of the fledgling telco that same year. But when Rodrigues asked him to try giving people a “gaming router”—which didn’t exist at the time—Chan knew he had a long road ahead.

Back then, players had to figure out how to optimize their own connections without help from either their ISP or in-game support. “When it came to issues like gaming latency, everything was a finger-pointing match,” says Chan. In the early days of MyRepublic, one of the first things he realized was that routing was a key issue to improving latency. Using a VLAN, or virtual local area network, allowed them to move different users to different IP segments on the same network switch.

Chan saw immediate benefits to shifting MyRepublic’s gaming customers to a different IP segment using the same hardware. If one route was performing poorly, they’d simply shift to another; Chan’s team even researched the best routes for specific gaming servers.

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While VLANs have been around since the ’90s for a variety of reasons—to beef up security, or create more flexibility in network design—Chan hadn’t seen them used this way in the commercial ISP world. As MyRepublic began optimizing their network for gaming customers, it elevated service for its entire client pool. “The traditional issue with why telcos wouldn’t fix their customers’ gaming issues is because they never separate the gamers from the nongamers,” he says. MyRepublic began experimenting with using the most expensive data routes for gamers, who were drawn to the fledgling ISP’s promise of fast speeds.

“[Gamers] don’t use that much bandwidth,” Chan says. The most decisive factor in playing online games is latency, especially when a team of players needs to communicate with each other on split-second decisions. Using VLANs, MyRepublic was able to react faster than its competitors because of its approach to custom routing.

In the early days, the approach invited skepticism, and concern about the cost of a high-speed internet subscription. As a result, Chan and his team had to get creative about marketing their new ISP, taking to the forums of HardwareZone, a Singaporean website for tech enthusiasts, gamers, and local trolls. Drawing on his WoW clout, Chan appealed to his guild buddies to sign up. “Those that we couldn’t convince, we hired,” he says with a laugh.

During these guerilla HardwareZone excursions, Chan took advantage of the strong relationship between IT pros and gaming. With thousands of posts, he spread the word of MyRepublic like a “one-man social media army,” playing on his gaming experience to win over cynics who weren’t sure if the new ISP was a viable option. “Because of that, people started talking about what games they played,” he says, “and I’d say, the ping is this. Check the ping on whatever game you want, I’ll tell you. And if it’s not good, I will improve it.” People began sending him lists of games, and he assigned an intern to research IP addresses and do ping network tests to find the best routes for committed gamers. They even added live latency reports on commonly used overseas gaming servers. Over time, Chan’s individual appeals to MyRepublic’s growing gamer demographic—along with his personal commitment to helping fellow gamers—finally paid off.

“We always felt like no one could copy [our approach] because of the amount of work we put in,” he says.Chan believes no other ISP has imitated them because they don’t want to redo their entire network.

MyRepublic has since weathered rocky launches to land in Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. Its GAMER fiberoptic service, aimed specifically at (you guessed it) gamers, offers custom routing to over 50 different game servers as well as the fastest Steam downloads in the Asia Pacific region.

Other Singapore ISPs have half-heartedly followed along. ViewQwest, for instance, has a less in-your-face “Raptor Plan,” peppered with gamer-cliche descriptors. The country’s largest telco, Singtel, notably offers a contract that includes gaming optimization via wtfast, a Canadian company that improves ping for gamers through their self-described “gamers private network.” On its own, wtfast is geared toward improving gaming traffic for specific games—not normal internet traffic—on a monthly subscription model. In the narrow gamer-centric world of cringe-inducing marketing jargon, it seems that fast internet is still seen as a necessity for gamers, but a luxury for the average consumer—an unsustainable position in the era of streaming content.

Of course, the idea of accessing and streaming games from the cloud isn’t new. One could argue that game streaming culture began with cable TV services like PlayCable in 1980, made for users to “download” games for the Mattel Intellivision console. In the early 2000s streaming platform pioneers like OnLive and Gaikai were acquired by Sony; today, the most robust cloud service belongs to the PlayStation Network. Nearly two decades on, Google’s Stadia wants us to believe that one day, gaming will be console-free. But since its first wave of problematic rollouts, it’s clear that the average household internet connection just isn’t good enough for Google’s vision of future gaming. Even at the start of 2020, many early adopters are already losing patience with Google’s new golden child even as it struggles to gain momentum.

“The main idea behind Stadia is great,” says Pap, the Romanian technical director. “The problem is…poor infrastructure of the different countries or regions. You won’t need a high download or upload speed connection, but a stable one which allows a [continuous] link to this cloud-based service.” In a sense, Stadia has put the proverbial horse before the cart, flying in the face of decades of gaming-led innovations in internet improvements. Microsoft xCloud, meanwhile, opted to start out in South Korea, a country with fast, reliable internet by any standard.

In a world of increasingly user-hostile internet regulations, the time has passed for outside-the-box solutions like the ad-hoc LAN networks from Romania’s past, or the dedicated custom routing approach that Chan and his cohorts took at MyRepublic. But the time has also passed for “gaming” as a hyped-up marketing angle among internet service providers. Efficiency and speed simply can’t continue as “gaming” features, not when the internet is increasingly (and rightfully) considered a utility rather than a luxury.


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