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FCC contest stimulates development of apps to help keep ISPs honest

The winners of the FCC's Open Internet challenge provide consumers with new tools to monitor ISPs.

Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the winners of its open Internet Challenge.

“The winners of this contest will help ensure continued certainty, innovation and investment” in the broadband sector,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski at the awards ceremony. “Shining a light on network management practices will ensure that incentives for entrepreneurs and innovators remain strong. They will help deter improper conduct helping ensure that consumers and the marketplace pick winners and losers online, and that websites or applications aren’t improperly blocked or slowed.”

The contest received twenty four submissions in total, with three winners. MobiPerf, a mobile network measurement tool that runs on Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile devices, won both the People’s Choice Award and best overall Open Internet App. MobiPerf collects anonymous network measurement information directly from mobile phones. MobiPerf was designed by a University of Michigan and Microsoft Research team.

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Two apps and teams shared the Open Internet Research Award. ShaperProbe, which was originally called, “DiffProbe,” is designed to detect service discrimination by Internet service providers (ISPs). ShaperProbe uses the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) research platform. All of the data collected through ShaperProbe will be publicly accessible, according to Georgia Institute of Technology, which developed the app.

Netalyzer is a Web-based Java app that measures and debugs a network. Notably, the Netalyzer Internet traffic analysis tool has a “Mom Mode,” which may make it more accessible to people like, well, my own mother. Netalyzer was built by the International Computer Science Institute (ISCI) at the University of California at Berkeley.

More details about the winners and the teams that built them is available at FCC.gov.

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Open Internet questions

It almost goes without saying that this contest carried some baggage at the outset. Last December, the launch of a new contest by the Federal Communications Commission was overshadowed by concerns about what the new FCC open Internet rules could mean for net neutrality, particularly with respect to the mobile space that is of critical interest to many developers. Nonetheless, the FCC open Internet challenge went forward, focused on stimulating the development of apps for network quality of service testing.

Amidst legitmate concerns about the sustainability of apps contests, the outcomes of this Open Internet challenge offers a couple of important data points.

First, the challenge does seem to have stimulated the creation of a new resource for the online community: unlike the other two winners, the MobiPerf app was created for the contest, according to FCC press secretary Neil Grace.

Second, when this challenge launched, collecting more data for better net neutrality was a goal that organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and M-Lab supported. The best answers to questions about filtering or shaping rely “on the public having real knowledge about how our Internet connections are functioning and whether or not ISPs are providing the open Internet that users want,” wrote Richard Esguerra.

Now the public has better tools to gather and share that knowledge. Will these apps “shed light” on broadband providers’ tactics? As with so many apps, that will depend on whether people *use* them or not. The two winning apps that existed before the contest, Netalyzer and ShaperProbe, have already been used thousands of times, so there’s reason to expect more usage. For instance, Netalyzer can be (and was) applied in analyzing widespread search hijacking in the United States. In that context, empowered consumers that can detect and share data about the behavior of their Internet service providers could play a more important role in the broadband services market.

Finally, the FCC has established new ties to the research and development communities at Berkeley, Georgia Tech and other institutions. It connected with the community. Integrating more technical expertise from academia with the regulator’s institutional knowledge is an important outcome from the challenge, and not one that is as easily measured as “a new app for that.” It’s not clear yet whether the outcomes from the Apps for Communities challenge, set to conclude on August 31st, will be as positive.

The expertise and the data collected from these apps might come also in handy if the time ever comes when the regulator has to make a controversial decision about whether a given ISP’s service to its users goes beyond “reasonable network management.”

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