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Would we be ready for an always-on Xbox?

Who has this majestic broadband internet in the U.S.?

In general, anyone who frequently takes their Xbox online today would most likely be able to handle an always-on console. The problem is there’s a sizable number of people that don't have the necessary broadband speeds in the first place.

But first, some quick context. In its latest quarterly earnings report last month, Microsoft shared that it had sold 77.2 million Xbox 360 units worldwide since the system's launch in November 2005. Of those,there are now 46 million Xbox Live members who, the company states, "regularly access Xbox Live" for "games and entertainment.” In other words, those are the ones who are actually taking their consoles online. A little bit of a discrepancy there.

More specifically, while an exact regional estimate is hard to pinpoint, the Xbox 360 has been the best-selling console in America for 27 consecutive months. In other words, Microsoft has a winning formula going in its home country when it comes to the Xbox's audience, one that it hasn’t reported in many other regions. Or in other other words, the success of an always-on Xbox would be pretty tightly bound to the state of internet in America today.

In its most recent quarterly "State of the Internet" report, Akamai found that, as of the end of 2012, 64% of Americans were using internet with speeds of greater than 4 Mbps. That's good for just thirteenth in the world, and puts the U.S. behind countries like Latvia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Canada when it comes to broadband adoption.

The U.S. Census Bureau pegs the country's population at more than 315 million people, so we're talking roughly 113 million people in the U.S. that don't have basic broadband internet speeds in their home. In other words, we’re talking a lot of people who either don’t have the internet for an always-on console, or at least can’t be sure that it would always run smoothly. That said, Akami's report indicated broadband adoption grew 16% year-over-year in 2012.

Akamai says that America's average internet speed is 7.4 Mbps, which is again a big yearly increase at 28%. That falls within the 6-15 Mbps range recommended by the FCC for sustaining a couple of high-demand tasks, but it's still a ways away from the more comfortable 15 Mbps and up speed tier. In fact, Akamai reports that just 19% of Americans are connected with speeds greater than 10 Mbps, though that number nearly doubled year-over-year.

The report gets more specific with regard to which states are tops when it comes to broadband adoption too. Generally speaking, northeastern states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and those in the New England region have the highest rates of adoption as well as the fastest speeds. Not surprisingly, more spread-out rural states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and the like are lagging behind in these kinds of categories, though most of them are gradually improving.

The FCC further detailed the state of broadband access America in a blog post last January. There, it wrote that 98% of Americans have access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps and upload speeds of 768 Kbps (which is below Microsoft's online recommendation above). Just 93% have access to those through more reliable wired connections, though. And when it comes to getting speeds of at least 6 Mbps, 81% have access—though again that includes wireless technologies. The FCC did not reply when we asked how many have access to wired speeds of at least 6 Mbps.

If Microsoft were to introduce an always-on machine, it would be creating one of the first game consoles that literally couldn't be played by millions of people from the get-go. That's just a little … different from what we're used to seeing.

So who charges for this broadband stuff in the U.S.?

The good is that broadband internet access is still growing, and that the government has a plan in place to get more people in the country onto superior broadband speeds within the next decade. We've been citing the FCC a lot in this article, and there's good reason for that: It's the agency behind the National Broadband Plan, and is actively studying the current state of U.S. internet, its ISPs, and how the whole thing can be improved.

Internet in America--and across most of the globe, really--has continued to improve with each passing year, so it shouldn't be too long before most of the rural areas, where broadband adoption and availability lags the most, will be able to speed things up. We've already seen the introduction of Gigabit internet services like Google Fiber too, which offer speeds that are 100 times faster than standard broadband today. New internet services should increase competition amongst ISPs, which in turn should bring about better results for consumers. An always-on console will seem far less questionable once services like that are widespread, technologically speaking at least.

The other good news is that the powerful ISPs carriers today--Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and others--mostly deliver on the services they promise. The FCC's latest 'Measuring Broadband America' report notes just that, and also explains that the average latency for broadband connections is in the 25-40 ms range. That's far below the recommended 150 ms ping time that Microsoft advises for online play with its console.

The bad news is that ISPs in America usually aren't the most agreeable bunch. As basically everyone has said at one point or another, for one reason or another, they frequently kind of suck. When viewed in a global context, the major providers generally charge more money for lower-quality internet. They aren't available in all regions of the country either.

As the FCC's most recent international broadband report stated last year, the average prices of a standalone broadband plan in the U.S. aren't exactly cheap. ("Standalone," by the way, means an internet plan that isn't bundled with some other service from the ISP. Companies like Comcast or Verizon will often get consumers to buy their cable and phone services with an internet plan in one package.)

More specifically, the FCC found that the average price of a 1-5 Mbps broadband plan is $35 per month in America. That put it 14th out of 24 measured countries, and almost $15 more expensive than Hong Kong, who at an average of $21.50 ranked highest in the study. For a plan of 5-15 Mbps, which is what we're considering the minimum speed range for an average household that would want an always-on Xbox, the average price is $44. That's 21st out of 33 studied countries. And for a more preferred speed tier of 15-25 Mbps, the average jumps up to $56.50, which is 26th out of 32 studied countries.

So what would this mean for buyers of an always-on Xbox? Well, for those of you who already pay an ISP to play your Xbox 360 online, not much. You can still feel free to gripe about how you're probably getting ripped off. We'll be right there with you. But like we've said, using an always-on machine means using more internet, and those normally offline gamers who'd want to make the jump to a constantly connected Xbox may need to pony up a little more money each month for an improved internet plan.

The other concern here, as we've mentioned before, is the issue of data caps. Some ISPs limit the amount of bandwidth you can use per month, either cutting you off, throttling your speeds, or charging you extra if and when you exceed your monthly allowance. With digital distribution only becoming more prevalent--and already a priority for next-gen consoles--anyone who plans on buying more content from, say, the Xbox Live Marketplace would probably like to feel secure that they won't be punished for doing so.

As it is now, though, some ISPs do just that to heavy downloaders. To be fair, these bandwidth caps are usually high enough to only affect just a small percentage of users, but the concern is there for gamers with the changing industry standards. Select providers like Verizon and Time Warner Cable keep things unlimited, but subscribers of Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Cox, CenturyLink, and others have limits in place. These typically fall in the 100 to 400 GB range depending on how much you're paying. Most who don't play online now probably wouldn't be bothered by such allowances with an always-on machine, but either way they're another thing to keep in mind.

Topics

DRM Xbox 720

28 comments

  • StrayGator - May 20, 2013 1:31 p.m.

    Why is this article featured on Penny Arcade Report and not, say, Top 7 worst jobs for NPCs?
  • Hanover - May 19, 2013 4:48 p.m.

    MS already stated that always on would be at the discretion of the game publishers. Obviously the professional game journalists at Games Radar haven't been doing their homework.
  • Rowdie - May 19, 2013 4:11 p.m.

    It just really feels irresponsible to be feeding craziness. "Always on, Always Connected" is not in anyway if you don't have great internet connection the system won't work. It doesn't mean draconian DRM. Always on, is simply that, it doesn't go into a full powered down state. This is good because that means it'll boot faster. That's always talked about as a great thing for other devices. We rarely shut out phones off. We don't shut down our cable boxes. I can't remember the last time I turned my computer off. Probably some vacation that took over a week. When you combine always on with always connected you get updates of all sorts pushed down. First they can do this when the internet isn't a busy a bonus for the whole world, and you no longer have to wait for these things when you want to play. That's brilliant. Poor PS3 owners cringed at every update. While it wasn't nearly as bad on the 360 getting rid of that wait all together would be really welcome. Again, now where does this indicate you can't play a local game if you don't have a connection. Honestly, journalist should be calling BS on this hysteria not feeding it. The article contending that because the box would always be on and connected means you need to consider it as if you had another high use app running constantly is irresponsible at best. It's not busy sucking up bandwidth just sitting there, in a sleep state. All that bandwidth research would have been a lot better off discussion a rumors that aren't full of FUD. Like the miniXbox. Now you can start talking about playing a multiplayer game on your console, streaming some netflix to your old 360 and reading the lates Gamesradar article on your minixbox and what kind of bandwidth that would take. IDK maybe talk to your IT guy and give folks some pointers on how to set up their router for optimal performance. Maybe warn them about that old laptop with the wifi b adapter crushing their N network, Pull the wire people.
  • Rowdie - May 20, 2013 4:19 p.m.

    Yeah, to get people to riot and or slaughter their fellow man is a good reason to feed hysteria. The system is going to want to connect. It's going be be connected if it can. You mean letting the publishers have some kind of DRM like they do on open platforms? No one minds that on PC. In fact most voices have been in favor of consoles being more open and letting publishers have more freedom to do what they want. They aren't down that road at all. There is no, it won't work if it's not connected. That's all FUD.
  • ParagonT - May 20, 2013 7:42 p.m.

    Agreed. Its just opening the doors to things that I believe will be problems in the future. Just because people are content with it for other systems (...) doesn't mean that its perfectly fine with me.
  • assedo1 - May 19, 2013 11:49 a.m.

    providers often deceiving promises 100MB, and give 50-60
  • sandplasma - May 19, 2013 8:22 a.m.

    Stop feeding these stupid rumors, Sony confirmed that they arent going this route and you can be 100% sure that the competition isnt either.
  • FireIceEarth - May 19, 2013 6:35 a.m.

    My main concern with all these figures for internet speeds is (in the UK at least) there is *always* a *massive* discrepancy between what you pay for and what you get; I've had to move home for a post-grad MSc, my parents live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and are forced (as it's the lowest available) to pay for 8 Mbps broadband. Is this the figure I'd be quoted for? If I run a speed-test then it comes out at 1.1 Mbps, but if I actually download something from Steam then it comes in at a staggering average download speed of 100 Kbps! 100 KILOBYTES PER SECOND! What you pay for vs what you get could mean that the numbers are even worse than you think.
  • ParagonT - May 20, 2013 1:06 p.m.

    I think the maximum Mbps in my area used to be a whopping 3 Mbps. It just recently bumped up to 6 Mbps a couple of years ago. So if you were getting what you payed for hypothetically, I would be totally jelly of you. But I feel for ya, my friends parents had been screwed for over 10 years by the only available broadband service in our area, Windstream, because they were getting a lower tier of bandwidth than they were paying for. Bless her heart, but in her lapse of judgement she took the 100 dollars worth of credit (bribe) instead of pressing charges. My college only offers a whopping 10 Mbps. Here in the great state of Kentucky, we take pride in our technological advancements and services. /sarcasm
  • ShadowOps117 - May 19, 2013 6:01 a.m.

    I do not even have Xbox Live. Much less a wireless network. No Xbox for me then.
  • MightyWumbo - May 18, 2013 9:38 p.m.

    so it looks like ill be getting a ps4 and maybe a wii u if they make a super smash bros console edition!
  • codystovall - May 18, 2013 8:46 p.m.

    I dont have online sooooo.......
  • StrayGator - May 18, 2013 2:42 a.m.

    and suddenly I think: you know how a seemingly single product have few variants? Samsung galaxy Sx phones are notorious for featuring different hardware / connectivity options for different parts of the world. It's also common in guitars (i.e. strats/teles made with ash/alder bodies, whatever's cheaper at the time). if MS will go a similar route, we might see great demand for import consoles from outh america / east eu.
  • Shinn - May 18, 2013 1:40 a.m.

    I live in New Zealand, so no.
  • imagremlin - May 17, 2013 11:41 p.m.

    Can anyone describe a scenario where an constant connection is required for an offline game? I can't see any, and that's the kind of game I primarily play. If the console insists on using my connection, I need to know what for, and at the end of the day, I can never be sure of what the heck its doing. Is it checking that I'm not stealing the software? Is it reporting on what I play, when and how? Whatever it is, it's not doing anything for me, it's doing something for the publishers or for Microsoft. I'm not comfortable with that, I cannot be. I'm a console player, I own every single console since the PS1. If the NextBox is always online, it will be the first console I'm not buying.
  • einhazard - May 17, 2013 11:01 p.m.

    I grew up in the country in western MN, and up until just a couple years ago, people were still left to one internet choice: Dial-Up. The idea of a always-on (or sometimes-on) console just doesn't appeal to me. Granted, I live somewhere with good internet now, but America has a lot of open space between the coasts, and I feel like a lot of gamers would get screwed out of playing new stuff due to the fact that companies just flat-out will not run cable to where they live. I want to be able to take a console home and show my parents (you may laugh, but my dad loves seeing the new games), and if I can't do that, it's a personal disappointment. I may be among the minority that doesn't care about uploading stuff to YouTube and Facebook or making customer playlists for soundtracks on the fly, but that's because I want to game for the sake of gaming, not for the bells and whistles. I dunno. Maybe I'm just getting old.

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