Georgia Tech project arms consumers against restrictive ISPs

Researchers are developing a suite of tools for routers to help users track bandwidth performance and usage.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

Your home's Internet router is an idiot. It is the one device you have that, theoretically, could accurately tell you how fast your Internet connection is over time, and who in your house is using up the bandwidth. But it does none of that.

It's not in the name of simplicity, either. The software that's baked into demented routers is not, for the most part, user-friendly. It's just dumb, because dumb is cheap.

Adventurous geeks who have the right hardware can upgrade a router by reprogramming it with an open-source replacement operating environment, like DD-WRT or Tomato. Those that do get useful new features, like VPN support, network bridging, and flexible quality-of-service controls. See this discussion on Google+. But your average consumer isn't about to do that.

That's a shame, especially now, as ISPs are getting more restrictive. They're throttling traffic under certain conditions and limiting monthly bandwidth. ISP-provided monitoring tools don't give consumers enough information about how they're using their connection. What users need is a robust and clear dashboard that tells them if they're getting what they're paying for from their ISP and also how the different devices on their network are using the connection.

A project out of Georgia Tech, and funded by the NSF and Google, is trying to get that information into the hands of consumers, with a few related projects: Bismark, which is Open-WRT-based code for routers that collects data from home networks; Kermit, a tool that will tell users how their network connection is performing based on data that Bismark collects, and uCap, which will show users how bandwidth is being used by devices in the home. The user-facing software (Kermit and uCap) runs on PCs for now, but the only way to get the data reliably is to have the router collect it using the Bismark firmware. Small trials of the projects are under way in Atlanta and South Africa.

Marshini Chetty, a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech, told me the project began as research to see if home Internet users are getting the bandwidth they are paying for, and to see if that data could be made accessible to them. "I've been working in this space for years," Chetty told me. "I'm interested in empowering people."

As ISPs tighten the screws on Internet usage, it's going to be important for consumers to know what they are consuming. Just as the roll-out of smart electricity meters is going to force consumers to learn about their power usage habits and patterns, smart routers might finally help users get a grip on their bandwidth, so they can do two important things: find out which of their devices are hogging bandwidth (if necessary) and make sure they're getting what they pay for from their bandwidth service.

The ISPs have not done a good job of providing bandwidth usage data to their customers. For the most part, their tools are rudimentary where they exist at all. It's going to be up to the network equipment vendors to provide platforms to collect this information. The existence of tools like this, which could be baked into routers during manufacture, could help spark a small resurgence in sales of home network equipment, as consumers arm themselves against new, stricter ISP usage limits.