Wherein Yoshi-P teaches Networking 101. I deliberated over terminology but decided to stick to layman’s terms since Yoshi-P is writing for a casual audience.
(tfw your country will never have Japan’s internet)
#46: “A Matter of Life and Death”
Published in 2015/11/05 issue
Internet Service Provider—or ISP for short. Nowadays, I’m sure most people reading this have their own internet connection at home, and using your home internet or LAN is as natural as breathing air. Of course, FFXIV players can’t play the game without internet, so it’s more or less a daily necessity. And in order to use the internet, you need an ISP. Today, I’ll be talking about ISPs.
Around 20 years ago, when the worldwide web was beginning to spread, there were very few ISP companies to choose from, and people who were using the internet struggled with the decision. Nowadays when you rent an apartment, you don’t really have to think about it since the building is already set up with an internet connection—all you have to do is sign an additional contract. And cable TV often comes bundled with internet, so most people probably never think about “choosing an ISP”.
But for online gamers, the act of choosing an ISP is very important. Many online gamers, especially ones who play on PC, are very selective about their equipment, like an athlete would be. They even buy specialized gaming mice and keyboards to play their online games. However, before all of that should come the ISP, which has a greater impact than input devices.
The internet is structured around underground cables and telephone lines that transport data in the form of packets. Your PC or game console sends your inputs through these cables to the server managed by the game company, which calculates your character’s movement or battle outcomes. The resulting packets are then sent back through the cables to you. Basically, using the internet is like a game of catch. It’s very simple. Image sharing and video streaming also work the same way—the one sending the request is you, the “client”, and the receiver is called the “server”.
As an extreme simplification, let’s pretend that the client and server are connected directly by a single cable. Try to imagine a cable connecting your home to Square Enix’s server in a straight line, that doesn’t make any detours. Wireless internet works the same way—your Wi-Fi device sends your packets over invisible microwaves to a nearby router that catches them and sends them through that same underground cable to the server. Receiving data is simply the same process in reverse. Basically, the only difference is whether your PC or game console is connected to the cable or if the data is briefly sent over microwaves instead. Wireless transmission takes slightly more time.
Now, ISPs are the ones who facilitate your data transmissions, by laying these cables in the ground and purchasing and installing “base stations” that receive Wi-Fi signals. Some ISPs have their own cables, while others rent lines from other major ISPs.
However, in reality, internet connections aren’t as simple as a single cable connecting the client and the server. For instance, if you look at an airline’s website, their route maps are quite easy to understand. But the internet is truly a web—each ISP’s cables twist around in complex patterns under the ground, and data is passed through several base stations before it reaches its destination. Additionally, cables have a “capacity” attribute to them: the more bandwidth a cable has, the more data it can transmit. You can think of it like how the only difference between a thin hose and a thick hose is the amount of water that can be transported at once.
“We just have to choose the ISP with the thickest cables, then!” you may say. That’s half right, half wrong. Let’s say Company A has high-bandwidth cables, while Company B’s cables have half of Company A’s bandwidth. Company A is really good at advertising, so they have a lot of clients, say, 300,000. Company B’s cables only have half the capacity, but they take connection quality into consideration, and only take 100,000 customers. If all 400,000 of these people are sending the same data at once, Company B’s cables will handle it better (note that this example is an oversimplification). In other words, the biggest companies aren’t necessarily the best choice. It doesn’t matter how much better your cables are than the competition; if you take on more clients than they can comfortably hold, you’re going to see congestion.
The situation is further complicated by “transfers” between regions. Using train stations as an example, say Higashi-Shinjuku Station up until the Shinjuku hub are covered by Company A’s cables, while the region between Shinjuku and Hatsudai is covered by Company B’s cables. When you send data from Higashi-Shinjuku to Hatsudai, the packets first travel along Company A’s cables until they reach Shinjuku. Then, they transfer to Company B’s cables to go to Hatsudai. Company A and Company B have an agreement in place that allows them to use each other’s cables, thereby reducing the length of cable that each company needs to install. So, when you, the client, send data from your home (Higashi-Shinjuku) to the server (Hatsudai), it’s important to know which route it takes and how many transfers it makes. Even if Company B has good connection quality, your data transfer will still be delayed if Company A’s region is prone to congestion or equipment failures.
What’s worse is that it’s hard to increase the bandwidth of the cables, because the equipment installation is very costly. Meanwhile, the number of people using the internet in Japan is rapidly increasing, and so the amount of data being transferred around the country is skyrocketing. There is a limit to how much a cable can carry, so if the data doesn’t get throttled down somewhere, the cable will break. In the worst-case scenario, data can be “discarded” at a relay station. This leads to what we call packet loss—the data reaches Shinjuku Station, but it’s so crowded that it can’t get on the train.
If you’re reading this and thinking “There’s no way to tell besides trying, right?”, you’re absolutely correct. Since it depends on where you live, you won’t know until you actually try it. Plus, in recent years, with the advances in smartphone technology, we now have tens of millions of people using the same cables at once, so the congestion can easily last for weeks instead of days…
I’m running out of space now, so the life-and-death matter (for online gamers) of ISP selection will be continued next time.