There is a lot of discussion within the technology industry at the moment regarding potential use cases for, and investments into, the metaverse. Facebook has stated its intentions in this area quite definitively, rebranding as "Meta", Microsoft's announced $75 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard is seen by some commentators as further positioning to improve its metaverse credentials and a variety of participants in an array of industries are considering how they might participate in the metaverse. It is even being reported that a couple in India is planning what is thought to be the world's first "metaverse marriage" ceremony as an alternative to cancelling or downsizing their nuptials in these COVID stricken times.
While much of the commentary so far has quite rightly been about the potentially transformative capabilities of the metaverse, comparatively little attention has been paid so far to the practical issues of implementing this technology. It was interesting therefore to see the thought provoking article in the FT entitled "The Titans of the Metaverse have a Bandwidth Problem". This helps to highlight a concern that ISPs and other telecoms infrastructure operators have been grappling with for some time - how to engineer and deliver infrastructure and services in a way that supports an ever increasing user demand to consume data, and insofar as network upgrades are required to accommodate this, who pays?
Other uses for internet capacity which have had significant uptake within the past 5-10 years, such as demand for seamless video conferencing, lag-free gaming and the need to operate "mission critical" business processes with ultra low latency remotely have seen the limits of telecoms capacity tested in recent times. By way of example, according to Netflix's troubleshooting guide available on its website, the data used per hour per device can range between 0.3 GB and 7 GB depending on the quality selected. Put another way, the data required to stream or download a 4K UHD film about 1 hour and 8 minutes long would fill up a standard 8GB Kindle (which is marketed as having capacity to store thousands of books). One can only imagine how much more data will need to be transferred in order to create the fully interactive, high resolution 3D spaces for collaboration, gaming, learning etc that the metaverse promises, particularly if there are extended periods of mandatory remote working that are enforced as a result of public health measures in future years.
In order to accommodate this increase in data, significant investment will be required in order to upgrade existing telecoms networks. This will include among other things a requirement for improved backhaul and last mile connectivity, more data centre space, colocation or other storage, investments in virtualisation, and a variety of associated upgrades - such as power and other utilities. That is to say nothing of the costs associated with implementing new telecoms networks - lighting dark fibre, laying subsea cables, purchasing networking equipment etc. With coverage requirements meaning that this could require significant work to performed over large geographic areas, the cost of such upgrades are potentially enormous.
So who pays for all this work? ISPs and infrastructure providers are reluctant to do so, given that many of them already have significant in flight infrastructure upgrades and in some cases are receiving shareholder pressure to cut cost and increase return on investment. It would likely be commercially unattractive for ISPs to try to push this cost onto consumers of their services, especially given the well reported backlash following BT announcing their intention to increase prices by more than 9%. And, given the way that net neutrality laws operate (in the UK at least), it's hard to see how ISPs can implement a regime where they could pass this cost onto the metaverse service providers in exchange for preferential access to connectivity or prioritisation of certain types of traffic.
It remains to be seen how this particular gordian knot will be untangled and whether there will be any regulatory intervention in this area (note in particular that Ofcom is in the process of writing up the findings of its Net Neutrality Review). Companies looking to take advantage of all that the metaverse has to promise (either as suppliers or customers) should be aware of some of the more practical issues in this area and consider what steps they can take to best position themselves.