Mung Chiang: Time-dependent usage-based broadband price engineering (TUBE)

Thursday, Dec 8, 2011

Name: Mung Chiang, professor of electrical engineering

Invention: TUBE, (Time-dependent Usage-based Broadband price Engineering), a software system that will improve the mobile Internet experience.

What It Is: A software system that computes and delivers the right pricing incentives to help Internet service providers meet the challenges of growing bandwidth demand while providing users with choices to save on their monthly bills.

How It Works: Smartphones and other Internet-enabled devices are becoming increasingly popular. Yet the physical infrastructure that provides us with our streaming video and favorite apps is increasingly inadequate to meet these data-intensive demands. As a result, data plan prices are going up, and unlimited data plans are being replaced with tiered plans that charge per gigabyte of downloaded data.

Meeting this rapidly growing demand is a challenge for Internet service providers and cell-phone carriers because the forecasted demand is far greater than can be met even if service providers were to build new cell phone towers and buy more spectrum. “Cell phone carriers are in a similar position to the owner of a buffet restaurant whose customers come back every day with twice the appetite,” said Chiang.

A cell phone app based on Mung Chiang's technology could help customers maximize their use of streaming videos and other data usage while saving money on data plan fees.Given the importance of the Internet in our lives today, this is a problem that must be resolved, and this is where TUBE comes in.

TUBE builds on the observation that the Internet has several peak and off-peak user periods during the day. The bandwidth demands can vary by an order of magnitude difference in peak versus off-peak periods. TUBE helps service providers shift the traffic away from rush hour to other times of the day when traffic is light. “It is similar to having flexible work hours to spread rush hour throughout the day, except that delay elasticity is much higher in many Internet applications,” said Chiang.

Based on surveys, customers are willing to wait a few seconds for streaming videos and gaming, a few minutes for social network updates, and a few hours for downloading movies that they don’t intend to watch right away or for synchronizing with the cloud. The trick is finding out what apps and services each person is willing to wait on, and which ones he or she wants right away.

TUBE is a set of software algorithms with three segments: First, understanding how individuals use their Internet devices; second, designing a scheduling structure that enables sustainable flat rate pricing; and third, offering the consumer the opportunity to schedule traffic themselves.

The first segment, understanding how individuals use their devices, is called MAP, short for Measurement, Analytics, and Profiling. MAP collects data on user behavior, such as what time of day the individual uses the Internet and for what purposes, and then continuously updates a usage profile customized for each consumer. MAP sends only the summary statistics to a secure central server while maintaining individual user privacy.

The second segment of TUBE is its innovative pricing structure, the Intelligent Flat Rate (IFR). Most consumers prefer the certainty of a standard rate per month. TUBE looks at the individual profiles generated in the first step and determines for each person which apps eat bandwidth at the congestion hours, and which ones are delay-tolerant. IFR then figures out how to schedule jobs so that the more time-elastic traffic is spread into non-heavy use periods. “With the Intelligent Flat Rate, you give the service provider the flexibility to delay the traffic that is delay-able,” said Chiang. IFR also allows customers to override it a certain number of times per month for free.

An alternative to IFR is Time-Dependent Pricing (TDP). This is an explicit pricing strategy that gives the user the option to do his or her own cost-benefit analysis prior to downloading a video or using an app, based on the prices offered by the ISP through TUBE’s price-optimization engine. The consumer can also use an autopilot mode generated from his or her MAP profile to make real time decisions on his or her behalf.

Applications: TUBE can provide Internet service providers with the ability to keep prices low while giving consumers the services they want. A TUBE app on a mobile phone or laptop allows the user to specify time elasticity preferences for individual apps, view autopiloted schedules, receive notifications about network congestion, and monitor bandwidth usage. TUBE is capable of being integrated into service providers’ offerings because its measurement and computational engines can readily interface with the device operating system, the graphic user interface, and the carrier’s backbone management software.

Inspiration: The project emerged from independent work in Chiang’s lab by undergraduate Carlee Joe-Wong and continued with the work of research scholar Sangtae Ha and postdoc Soumya Sen and their team.

Collaborators: TUBE is being tested in a trial in collaboration with the Matanuska Telephone Association (MTA), an internet service provider that serves rural populations in Alaska. Another collaborator is the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA), a nonprofit organization representing small and medium ISPs. TUBE is also planning trials in Asia and Europe, including the current focus in India. TUBE is a project of the EDGE Lab, a research facility devoted to merging theory and systems in the wireless and wireline networking community. The EDGE Lab has a strong industry consortium that includes cell phone carriers, internet service providers, content providers, and hardware and software manufacturers. TUBE has received support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative to help provide internet service to rural and underserved areas.