The FCC just released proposed policy changes in response to the January 2014 federal appeals court ruling (PDF) that rejected the FCC’s “Open Internet” regulations. Proponents and opponents have been vocal about the proposed changes to net neutrality, or what the FCC calls the Open Internet:

“The ‘Open Internet’ is the Internet as we know it, a level playing field where consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use, and where consumers are free to decide what content they want to access, create, or share with others.”

That definition appears to be agreeable to everyone including the court. If that is true, then a group of researchers at Stanford University may have the solution to the rather thorny net neutrality issue.

In their paper, Putting Home Users in Charge of their Network, the research team discuss why users should be the ones making the decisions. The researchers explain (emphasis is the authors): “The user should define which traffic gets what type of service, and when this happens; while the ISP figures out how and where in the network, provisioning is implemented.”

The researchers’ reasons are:

  • Users expect the Internet to be fast, always on, reliable, and responsive.
  • Users do not want the network to stand in the way of the application.
  • ISPs struggle with how to share available bandwidth among users’ applications.

The research team then made the point that the current “one size fits all” approach is not working, and that each individual user should be able to choose the priority of their applications, indicate that preference to the ISP, and have the ISP implement the required changes. The researchers also feel this is entirely doable:

“We could use existing methods, such as Resource ReSerVation Protocol (RSVP), but we can go one step further and exploit recent trends in networking that make it even easier for ISPs to have more programmatic control over their networks, therefore making it easier for the ISP to implement the user’s desire.”

What’s required?

The researchers consider this a two-part challenge, dividing the two parts into “Intents and User Agents” and “User-ISP Interface.” As for intent, the authors argue users understand what they want (a HD movie not to pixelate for example), but are unable to affect the required changes. That becomes the job of user agents. “User agents bridge the gap between what users experience (e.g. frustration for bad-video experience), and what is conveyed to the network (e.g. reserve more bandwidth).”

User agents

There are three distinct user agents:

Static network-wide provisioning: Using a web-based management console, the user can provision a particular device (e.g., a TV) so that it gets enough bandwidth. The researchers accomplished this by mapping devices using their MAC/IP addresses to the appropriate service. The following slide depicts the management console.

Dynamic app-based provisioning: This agent allows provisioning per application. For example, apps such as VoIP that cannot accept high latency would be mapped to a low-latency service.

On-demand bandwidth: The researchers’ understanding that network provisioning is not always predictable included a provision to eliminate the uncertainty. An example might be a video that is playing at a low bit-rate and pixelating. The user would push a software button (My Boost), requesting more bandwidth from the ISP. The team submitted MyBoost along with My Home to The Cable Show 2012 Hackathon Competition and won the grand prize (YouTube video).

User-ISP Interface

ISPs have the capacity to offer different service levels, such as bit-rate, low-latency, low-loss, or combinations of them. According to the researchers, the user via the three agents should control these properties. In the paper, the authors take it a step further: “The user can also influence how the traffic is routed, by asking the ISP to delegate control to a third provider. This enables future innovation where application providers can optimize the network for their specific needs in order to better serve users.”


This approach allows a more granular accounting of customer usage. The ISP would, upon receiving an agent request, identify the customer, make the appropriate changes, and record the changes for customer invoicing. The researchers are aware there may be conflicts within the home network: “Further coordination might be necessary when different agents have conflicting interests. Part of this functionality can be placed within the home network itself to mediate requests originating from competing users or applications and their agents.”

Final thoughts

The plan is for an automated dialogue between ISPs and their customers. As of now, provided service is a compromise between what customers want and what ISPs can and will provide, which is less than optimal for both the customer and the ISP. Interactive tools similar to My Boost and My Home seem like a win-win venture.

What do you think of this idea? Do you think users should be able to decide the Net’s neutrality since they’re paying for it? Share your thoughts in the discussion.

See also