August 28, 2016

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How Will Consumers Use Faster Internet Speeds?

This week saw an exciting announcement about the experimental deployment of DOCSIS 3.1 in limited markets in the United States, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, and parts of northern California, which will bring gigabit-per-second Internet speeds to many homes over the existing cable infrastructure. The potential for gigabit speeds over the existing cable networks bring hope that more consumers will ultimately enjoy much higher-speed Internet connectivity both in the United States and elsewhere.

This development is also a pointed response to the not-so-implicit pressure from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy higher-speed Internet connectivity, which includes other developments such as the redefinition of broadband to a downstream throughput rate of 25 megabits per second, up from a previous (and somewhat laughable) definition of 4 Mbps; many commissioners have also stated their intentions to raise the threshold for the definition of a broadband network to a downstream throughput of 100 Mbps, as a further indication that ISPs will see increasing pressure for higher speed links to home networks. Yet, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association has also claimed in an FCC filing that such speeds are far more than a “typical” broadband user would require.

These developments and posturing beg the question: How will consumers change their behavior in response to faster downstream throughput from their Internet service providers? 

Ph.D. student Sarthak Grover, postdoc Roya Ensafi, and I set out to study this question with a cohort of about 6,000 Comcast subscribers in Salt Lake City, Utah, from October through December 2014. The study involved what is called a randomized controlled trial, an experimental method commonly used in scientific experiments where a group of users is randomly divided into a control group (whose user experience no change in conditions) and a treatment group (whose users are subject to a change in conditions).  Assuming the cohort is large enough and represents a cross-section of the demographic of interest, and that the users for the treatment group are selected at random, it is possible to observe differences between the two groups’ outcomes and conclude how the treatment affects the outcome.

In the case of this specific study, the control group consisted of about 5,000 Comcast subscribers who were paying for (and receiving) 105 Mbps downstream throughput; the treatment group, on the other hand, comprised about 1,500 Comcast subscribers who were paying for 105 Mbps but at the beginning of the study period were silently upgraded to 250 Mbps. In other words, users in the treatment group were receiving faster Internet service but was unaware of the faster downstream throughput of their connections. We explored how this treatment affected user behavior and made a few surprising discoveries:

“Moderate” users tend to adjust their behavior more than the “heavy” users. We expected that subscribers who downloaded the most data in the 250 Mbps service tier would be the ones causing the largest difference in mean demand between the two groups of users (previous studies have observed this phenomenon, and we do observe this behavior for the most aggressive users). To our surprise, however, the median subscribers in the two groups exhibited much more significant differences in traffic demand, particularly at peak times.  Notably, the 40% of subscribers with lowest peak demands more than double their daily peak traffic demand in response to service-tier upgrades (i.e., in the treatment group).

With the exception of the most aggressive peak-time subscribers, the subscribers who are below the 40th percentile in terms of peak demands increase their peak demand more than users who initially had higher peak demands.

This result suggests a surprising trend: it’s not the aggressive data hogs who account for most of the increased use in response to faster speeds, but rather the “typical” Internet user, who tends to use the Internet more as a result of the faster speeds. Our dataset does not contain application information, so it is difficult to say what, exactly is responsible for the higher data usage of the median user. Yet, the result uncovers an oft-forgotten phenomena of faster links: even existing applications that do not need to “max out” the link capacity (e.g., Web browsing, and even most video streaming) can benefit from a higher capacity link, simply because they will see better performance overall (e.g., faster load times and more resilience to packet loss, particularly when multiple parallel connections are in use). It might just be that the typical user is using the Internet more with the faster connection simply because the experience is better, not because they’re interested in filling the link to capacity (at least not yet!).

Users may use faster speeds for shorter periods of time, not always during “prime time”. There has been much ado about prime-time video streaming usage, and we most certainly see those effects in our data. To our surprise, the average usage per subscriber during prime-time hours was roughly the same between the treatment and control groups, yet outside of prime time, the difference in usage was much more pronounced between the two groups, with average usage per subscriber in the treatment group exhibiting 25% more usage than that in the control group for non-prime-time weekday hours.  We also observe that the peak-to-mean ratios for usage in the treatment group are significantly higher than they are in the control group, indicating that users with faster speeds may periodically (and for short times) take advantage of the significantly higher speeds, even though they are not sustaining a high rate that exhausts the higher capacity.

These results are interesting for last-mile Internet service providers because they suggest that the speeds at the edge may not currently be the limiting factor for user traffic demand. Specifically, the changes in peak traffic outside of prime-time hours also suggest that even the (relatively) lower-speed connections (e.g., 105 Mbps) may be sufficient to satisfy the demands of users during prime-time hours. Of course, the constraints on prime-time demand (much of which is largely streaming) likely result from other factors, including both available content and perhaps the well-known phenomena of congestion in the middle of the network, rather than in the last mile. All of this points to the increasing importance of resolving the performance issues that we see as a result of interconnection. In the best case, faster Internet service moves the bottleneck from the last mile to elsewhere in the network (e.g., interconnection points, long-haul transit links); but, in reality, it seems that the bottlenecks are already there, and we should focus on mitigating those points of congestion.

Further reading and study. You’ll be able to read more about our study in the following paper: A Case Study of Traffic Demand Response to Broadband Service-Plan Upgrades. S. Grover, R. Ensafi, N. Feamster. Passive and Active Measurement Conference (PAM). Heraklion, Crete, Greece. March 2016. (We will post an update when the final paper is published in early 2016.) There is plenty of room for follow-up work, of course; notably, the data we had access to did not have information about application usage, and only reflected byte-level usage at fifteen-minute intervals. Future studies could (and should) continue to study the effects of higher-speed links by exploring how the usage of specific applications (e.g., streaming video, file sharing, Web browsing) changes in response to higher downstream throughput.

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Is There a Future for Net Neutrality after Verizon v. FCC?

In a decision that was widely predicted by those who have been following the case, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has invalidated the FCC’s Open Internet Rules (so-called net neutrality regulations), which imposed non-discrimination and anti-blocking requirements on broadband Internet access providers. The rules were challenged by Verizon as soon as they were enacted in 2010. The court held that, given the FCC’s past (and never reversed or modified) regulatory choice to classify broadband providers under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as “information services” rather than “telecommunications services,” it cannot now impose on them common carrier obligations that apply under the statute only to services classified as telecommunications. Verizon argued in the case that the Open Internet Rules were not common carrier regulations, but the court didn’t buy it.
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Annual report of FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee

For the past year, I’ve been serving on the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee (OIAC), and chairing its mobile broadband working group. The OIAC just completed its first annual report (available here). The report gives an overview of the past year of work from four working groups (economic impacts, mobile broadband, specialized services, and transparency). I highly recommend anyone interested in Open Internet issues take a look.
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Arlington v. FCC: What it Means for Net Neutrality

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Arlington v. FCC. At issue was a very abstract legal question: whether the FCC has the right to interpret the scope of its own authority in cases in which congress has left the contours of their jurisdiction ambiguous. In short, can the FCC decide to regulate a specific activity if the statute could reasonably be read to give them that authority? The so-called Chevron doctrine gives deference to administrative agencies’ interpretation of of their statutory powers, and the court decided that this deference extends to interpretations of their own jurisdiction. It’s all very meta, but it turns out that it could be a very big deal indeed for one of those hot-button tech policy issues: net neutrality.

Scalia wrote the majority opinion, which is significant for reasons I will describe below. The opinion demonstrated a general skepticism of the telecom industry claims, and with classic Scalia snark, he couldn’t resist this footnote about the petitioners, “CTIA—The Wireless Association”:

This is not a typographical error. CTIA—The Wireless Association was the name of the petitioner. CTIA is presumably an (unpronounceable) acronym, but even the organization’s website does not say what it stands for. That secret, known only to wireless-service-provider insiders, we will not disclose here.

Ha. Ok, on to the merits of the case and why this matters for net neutrality.
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Blocking of Google+ Hangouts Android App

Earlier this week, online news sites started reporting the apparent blocking of Google’s Google+ Hangout video-chat application on Android over AT&T’s cellular network [SlashGear, Time, ArsTechnica].

Several of the articles noted the relationship to an earlier controversy concerning AT&T and Apple’s FaceTime application. Our Mobile Broadband Working Group at the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee released an case study on the AT&T’s handling of FaceTime in January of this year. Our report may help inform the new debate on the handling of the Google Hangout video app on cellular networks.

Addendum (5/21/2013): AT&T announces support for FaceTime over cellular under all pricing plans over LTE by the end of the year [MacObserver, The Register].

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White House Statement on Cell Phone Unlocking: A First Step Toward DMCA Reform?

Yesterday, the White House officially responded to the online petition to “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal,” which garnered more than 100,000 signatures in under 30 days. The Administration’s headline was emphatic: “It’s Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking.” The tech press heralded this significant but symbolic first step in addressing some of the most egregious shortcomings of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I hope the White House’s response signals a new chapter in the struggle to regain the freedom to innovate, research, create, and tinker. Last week, I discussed the petition and its context with Derek Khanna, who has been a champion of the cause. You can watch the video here:

As Derek pointed out, this battle is connected to a much larger policy problem: the DMCA bans many practices that are good for society–and without clear counterbalancing benefits. Reading the White House statement, it is hard to tell whether the Administration appreciates this fact.
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FCC Open Internet Advisory Committee Progress

Earlier this year, I wrote about the launch of the Open Internet Advisory Committee (OIAC). The committee’s mandate is to, “track and evaluate the effect of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, and to provide any recommendations it deems appropriate to the FCC regarding policies and practices related to preserving the open Internet.” I’m chairing the group looking at the unique issues in Mobile Broadband networks. Our group just issued its first report, a case study about AT&T’s handling of Apple’s FaceTime application:

AT&T/FaceTime Case Study
Mobile Broadband Working Group, Open Internet Advisory Committee, Federal Communications Commission

I spoke about the progress of our working group, and about the open Internet issues facing mobile broadband networks more generally, here at Princeton as part of CITP’s luncheon series on December 13th: “Open Internet Challenges in Mobile Broadband Networks”. See the video below:

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My Work at Princeton: Mobile Technology, Community Building and Civic Engagement

I’m excited to spend my year as a Fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy exploring and testing ideas about how broadband technology – particularly mobile wireless services – can and should be used to build strong local communities.

Patent Diagram ThumbmnailI have always been interested in how seemingly simple improvements to the existing way of doing something can make a big difference. As I was heading off to become an undergrad, I received a patent on new type of plastic bottle for dispensing thick liquids, such as ketchup. I figured that every extra little bit that people could get out of the bottom of ketchup, lotion, shampoo, and salad dressing bottles would save consumers a little money and add a little bit of convenience. For a variety of reasons that I’d be happy to discuss more in person, the plastic bottling industry did not shower me with royalties.
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Open Internet Advisory Committee kick-off

Last Friday, we had the first meeting of the Open Internet Advisory Committee (OIAC), called for by the FCC in the recent Open Internet Order. The members of the OIAC  consist of a mix of folks from venture capital firms, ISPs, governance organizations, community organizations, and academics like myself.  The OIAC’s mission is to “track and evaluate the effect of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, and to provide any recommendations it deems appropriate to the FCC regarding policies and practices related to preserving the open Internet.”  The video of our kick-off meeting is online.

In addition to the full meeting of the OIAC, we broke into four working groups — on mobile broadband, economic impacts of Open Internet frameworks, specialized services, and transparency. I’m chairing the group looking at Mobile Broadband, a tremendously important area since wireless and cellular networks are rapidly becoming the dominant way users access the Internet.  I’m looking forward to working with the rest of the working group, and the rest of the OIAC, to better understand how to ensure openness and transparency, while preserving the ability of service providers to manage their networks.  One thing is certain — fun and interesting times lie ahead!

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I Tell the FCC to End In-Home Video Encryption

In my last post, I asked “Who Killed the Open Set-Top-Box?.” There were some great comments on that post, which inspired me to write up my thoughts and send them to the FCC. The FCC has long tried and failed to mandate that cable companies make their systems more interoperable with third-party consumer devices. Nevertheless, the Commission recently opened a proceeding (11-169) to consider whether to end the “encryption ban” that had preserved the ability of third-party devices to receive basic-tier television signals. Boxee initially protested because its users often rely on these unencrypted signals, but eventually relented when Comcast promised to deliver a Digital Transport Adapter (DTA) workaround that would involve, “the creation of a licensing path for integrating DTA technology into third-party devices.” This push to impose licensing regimes on third-party devices is the latest in a series of such pushes stretching back to the mid-1990’s. I just filed a comment arguing that if the FCC wants to get rid of the encryption ban on basic cable, it should simultaneously think about doing away with problematic licensing and encryption schemes on the consumer-facing side of the set-top box. You can download the PDF from the FCC, or read the text after the jump.
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