As of July 2008, some 20 years after the first Internet Service Providers (ISP) were formed and some 50 years after packet switching was invented, the home broadband customer still has no guarantee of any quality parameter, no way of holding his ISP accountable for interruptions and low speed, no choice of quality and no way to fairly share resources with other customers in times of congestion.
Any home broadband customer will be familiar with the situation when something is wrong with their connection, be it unavailability, high data loss or failed name servers. Yet upon contacting the provider one is taken through a bemusing routine of resetting their PC, router, modem, and whatever else has buttons to press, the ISP rarely saying: “It is our fault, we’ll refund you.”
What exactly determines the quality of a broadband connection? All performance characteristics will depend on
- Network dimensioning and management
- Behaviour of other customers
- Resource sharing mechanism in place
- The rest of the Internet.
While the rest of the Internet is not in the operator’s powers and the behaviour of the users only partly, the network dimensioning and resource sharing facilitation certainly are. Let us now briefly describe what these issues encompass and how today’s operators implement them.
(The lack of) Resource sharing mechanisms
Resource sharing is a mechanism determining the division of network resources between the operator’s customers, especially in times of high demand and congestion. Certain resource sharing is facilitated by medium access protocols. For example, the DOCSIS protocol used in cable networks has extensive means of controlling the total usage of resources of every user at any time. Also the transport layer offers some resource sharing mechanism; TCP controls the rate of every connection but not the total rate of a user. Besides, it cares about resources along the end-to-end path rather than the resources in the operator’s network only.
The medium access protocols and even transport layer protocols are fully controllable by the operator who could use them to facilitate resource sharing.
So how do some of UK’s major broadband providers deal with fair sharing? Virgin Media cable broadband penalizes rough customers after they have committed a high-usage activity. The ISP will reduce the speed of the user’s connection for the duration of 5 hours after the customer exceeds a limit on the amount of data he transmits or receives in a given time interval.
This means that
- The punishment becomes ineffective if the user is not interested in using the connection after the incident.
- The punishment does not protect others at the time of congestion.
British Telecom employs a “Fair Usage Policy” according to which a customer’s bit rate will be “restricted” when the customer becomes a “heavy user”.
Please note that the cable standard DOCSIS offers excellent facilities when it comes to QoS. It has 6 quality classes and 8 priority levels. It has total control over upstream (hence can regulate TCP connections by regulating the protocol acknowledgments) and it can also schedule the downstream. The DOCSIS standard is well documented and a number of QoS-related research papers have been written on the topic, most of them focusing on real-world implementation.
Network dimensioning and management
It is the number of customers that largely determines the operator’s income. The infrastructure acquired to realise the sold service reduces profit. It is only natural that an operator tries to increase the former and reduce the latter, given that the service quality is hardly monitored at all and that it is extremely difficult for a customer to claim refunds for bad service. It is obvious that a network operator has great incentives not to support any initiative aimed to objectively measure the quality of the offered service.
It is not practical to infer an operator’s network management because the ISP is not obliged to disclose this information and even if it did, its effect on quality is non-trivial. What is left then is the pursuit of a mechanism which would hold the operator accountable for the service it provides, hence possibly motivating the provider to change their network management.
The rest of this article complains about the lack of accountability and presents 2 hypothetical strategies to increase the accountability.
The mere availability of a data connection is the core of the sold service but it is the quality of broadband provisioning that determines the utility customers derive from it. Yet, it is extremely difficult to prove that a service has been inadequate at some point in time. It is practically impossible for a common user to show that there was for example a packet loss-rate of 40% for the duration of 50 minutes last Saturday afternoon and that it was not the customer’s fault.
Why is it that we can take a broken watch back to the shop and have our money refunded, we can even raise legally sound complaints about complex services such as consulting or insurance but it is almost impossible for a non-techy broadband user to show that something was wrong with their broadband service? What is it about Internet service which makes it so hard to complain about?
For one thing, Internet provisioning is a multi-dimensional service. It spans across several time-scales, across space, it has complex statistical properties and it is perceived subjectively (unlike the quality of electricity or gas). But take the complexity of water quality standards, for example. They comprise over 50 quantitative parameters every liter of drinking water must satisfy. Yet, utility companies do satisfy these standards and the state usually takes care of their monitoring.
One can argue that an additional set of requirements on home broadband provisioning would increase the cost and in turn the price, having a negative effect on the service proliferation. But surely one can use the same argument in the case of water quality, car safety, and many other areas in which more stringent legal requirements clearly brought benefits far outweighing the cost.
Proving unsatisfactory quality
Part of the Consumer Law related to the provision of broadband is the Sale of Goods & Services Act. Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 service providers must sell goods that are, among other things,
- of satisfactory quality and
- delivered as described.
Of course, satisfactory quality remains undefined and the service is described only vaguely. Furthermore, even if some well-defined quality was breached, there would not be an easy way for a customer to prove it.
Let’s now design a simple hypothetical accountability strategy for today’s home broadband service. The aim here is to create a piece of evidence immune to the operator suggesting that perhaps there was a fault on the customer’s side.
A) Massively deployed application-layer metering
There are 2 ways we can think of, both solid for a court room. Since judges operate on the basis of reasonable belief, we’ll employ some statistics: If a large number of customers at the same time experience, measure and document a bad connection, it is unlikely that this is due to all of them having misconfigured their firewalls or having their cables cut at the same time. Naturally, in several cases it could have been the customer’s fault, but it is beyond reasonable belief that a large group of customers of a particular operator erred at the same time. Hence an application running on the customer’s computer can be used to generate evidence about the service when put together with a large number of other data.
A basic version of this concept is already in place. There are Internet forums where users post their measurements, obtained often from the excellent Speedtest.net. Now if these measurements were made automatically and the results processed to extract geographical and spatial commonalities, that would be a big step towards holding the ISP accountable.
B) Certified hardware monitors attached to customer modems
This method would rely on a device connected between the modem and user equipment. This device, let’s call it a monitor, will have a certification from some regulatory body such as the UK Ofcom. Operators will be legally obliged to allow this device be connected to the modem they provide. Another party – a governmental organisation or a regulated private company – will collect data from these monitors and make them available to the public. Since monitors are standardized and cannot be modified by the customer, there need not be a large number of them in order to rule out the customer’s fault.
Similarly to the way TV and radio ratings are collected from several customers, so measurement data will be collected from several monitors in a given locality, as illustrated in the figure below.
Both strategies require a start-up investment and some low long-term funding. Most customer will also need incentives to participate in the strategy.
Broadband speeds continue to grow together with the necessity of Internet access and the demands of new applications. Advances on the physical and medium access layer are being adopted by the industry. Innovative Internet applications are booming. Yet the experience of any more-than-slightly advanced Internet users is marred by poor network management, failures, oversubscription and unfair usage. At the same time, the progress on the intermediate layers – IP, transport, management – seems to stagnate. Thousands of research papers on quality provisioning and resource allocation seem to have been written in vain.
Be it a lobby group, customer iniative or the government themselves who will push the idea of accountability into practice, we think it is the key for a better home Internet provisioning.