Over the past five years, the network neutrality debate involving for-profit ISPs and "content" providers, together with security-related issues, has figured most prominently in the Western media's coverage of the Internet and in government regulatory hearings in both North America and Europe. The two principal issues have to do with equitable treatment of applications (application neutrality) and side payments between independent content and service providers.
The four research thrusts of this grant are: the development of unbiased, parsimonious models of macro-economic and networking dynamics of all parties involved; analyzing these models with an aim to assess the relative benefit of different pricing regimes, provider alliances, and service-differentiation strategies; acquiring current, real-world data and practical lessons-learned to inform these models; and focusing in particular on comparing neutral to non-neutral frameworks.
In a preliminary example study, a passive model of end-user demand was used to define a game between multiple ISPs and multiple content providers. The users could engage in two types of applications: one delay sensitive, the other throughput sensitive. The fraction of users engaged with a particular provider depended on the provider?s current prices, subject to a customer inertia model when competitors? prices were close. A regulated side-payment between providers of different types was considered. A surprising finding at stable Nash equilibrium was that monopolistic providers (say a single ISP) receiving side payments actually had less income than the 'neutral' scenario without side-payments (side payments result in increased end-user prices by the payee which lowers end-user demand). Revenues from the application types which consumed the most bandwidth were naturally affected the most.
The primary intellectual merit of this research has to do with the challenge of formulating tractable though realistic mathematical models of the cross-disciplinary elements of the macroscopic interactions among different entities participating in the Internet economy. Identified near-optimal strategies are tracked in the presence of naturally time-varying system parameters. Though a model may be simple, it often yields unexpectedly complex behavior (e.g., multiple Nash equilibria with differing stability qualities). Important real-world data and practical lessons will be identified in this research through the study of sensitivity of derived results to the different model parameters in play.
One aspect of the broader impact of this research pertains to the enormous financial stakes involved in the network neutrality debate, and therefore the potential of this research to influence significantly Internet operations and architectural development even in the near term. Industry outreach is a significant part of this research, not only to keep abreast of current developments, but also to obtain first-hand relevant data that hopefully can be disseminated to the broader research community. Another aspect of the broader impact of this research is the development and dissemination of related "economics" teaching modules suitable for networking graduate courses, and the recruitment and training of students from under-represented minority groups in Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering.