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A User-Influenced Pricing Mechanism for Internet Access

A User-Influenced Pricing Mechanism for Internet Access Gergely Biczók and Tuan A. Trinh High Speed Networks Laboratory Dept. of Telecommunications and Media Informatics Budapest University of Technology
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A User-Influenced Pricing Mechanism for Internet Access Gergely Biczók and Tuan A. Trinh High Speed Networks Laboratory Dept. of Telecommunications and Media Informatics Budapest University of Technology and Economics {biczok, Abstract. Proper pricing schemes are vital components to the continuing success of the Internet. In this paper, we propose a new pricing scheme for Internet access called user-influenced pricing. Our main contribution is threefold: first, we show how user-influenced pricing can provide the ISP with calculable revenues, while giving the users a chance to lower their costs via voting for their preferred pricing scheme. Second, we develop a cooperative weighted voting game which models the decisionmaking process, and we derive equilibrium solutions to analyze possible outcomes of the vote. Third, we investigate the distribution of power and we show that users with medium generated traffic volume are pivotal to the outcome. Finally, we discuss the practical feasibility of the proposed mechanism regarding user population, revenue planning and charging. 1 Introduction Advances in networking technology and affordable service prices are continuing to make the Internet a success story both for users and network providers. However, the recently emerged net neutrality debate has shed light on some problems of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) [1]. Since flat-rate billing is dominant and user traffic keeps on growing [14], ISPs get lower profits per data unit carried. An increasing number of news and studies report on the techniques ISP are beginning to look at and use to keep themselves profitable: these include traffic discrimination, introducing download caps and experimenting with alternative pricing schemes (e.g., usage-based pricing, three-part tariffs and charging content providers) [2]. In parallel, there is an ongoing global economic crisis of unseen proportions folding out in the recent months. This downturn makes people think twice about spending more than they absolutely have to. Consequently, ISPs may have to face the fact of decreasing popularity of their services among users. Since economic analysts cannot really predict the length of the global crisis, ISPs have to prepare for a user demand-driven market resulting in diminishing profits, and similarly, customers have to minimize their Internet access costs for an extended period of time. There is extensive research work dedicated to pricing network services. Some of the papers propose sophisticated pricing models for ISPs to extract consumer surplus [4] [5] [7]. Others argue that simple pricing plans are the only viable ones, since there is a clear user preference towards them [] [6]. In [8] authors establish the Price of Simplicity (PoS) referring to the difference in revenues between a simple pricing scheme (flat-rate) and the maximum achievable revenue. Furthermore, they characterize a range of environments, where PoS is low, i.e., flat-rate pricing is efficient. The authors of [9] show how ISPs can charge content providers for terminating their traffic at their users creating extra income if no net neutrality is enforced. We take a different approach: our goal is to give ISPs the benefit to plan their revenues, while giving a freedom of choice to the users to shape their own monthly cost. In a certain sense this approach has something in common with packet auctions [5] [7]: we involve users in the pricing process. On the other hand, we do not use a sophisticated auction scheme which makes it harder both for ISPs and users to plan/estimate their revenues and costs, respectively []. We also note that in these economically hard times users generating a low traffic volume have a strong incentive to be billed proportionally to traffic volume, contradicting the findings of [6]. Heavy users, of course, prefer sticking to flat rates. In this paper we propose a user-influenced pricing scheme for ISPs. First, the ISP determines the amount of income it wants to collect in the next billing period, and announces it to the forum of its users. At the same time, it announces the pricing schemes the users can choose from. In this paper we restrict the selection to simple flat-rate and usage-based schemes due to space constraints and tractability. Second, users vote for their preferred pricing scheme. Simple majority decides the outcome of the vote. Finally, the ISP implements the chosen billing method and bills its service accordingly. This simple scheme enables ISPs to get a fixed revenue that can be planned in advance, and gives incentive to users of the same traffic category to cooperate in order to achieve lower monthly costs. We analyze the possible outcomes of the vote in the presence of different user distributions, where different class of users dominate the population. The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. We introduce the concept of user-influenced pricing in Section 2. A game-theoretical model of the voting process is proposed in Section. We study the equilibrium solutions in Section 4. The distribution of voting power is derived using the Shapley value approach in Section 5. Section 6 discusses practical issues, and finally, Section 7 concludes the paper. 2 User-influenced pricing Here we describe how a service provider can use user-influenced pricing to bill its customers. As a first step, the ISP has to set a goal for the next billing cycle (e.g., one month), how much revenue R it wants to collect. This depends on a number of factors. From Section in this paper we do not consider multiple ISPs competing for the same set of users, rather a single ISP in a monopolistic setting. Nevertheless, here we mention that choosing a very high R would certainly drive users away, so there is an incentive to keep the expectations reasonable. Second, the ISP announces R to its users along with the possible billing options: flat-rate (F) and usage-based (U). Then users vote for the billing scheme they like. We assume that voting is mandatory, non-voting users are punished to pay according to the pricing scheme that is worse for them (e.g., usage-based for non-voting heavy users). The ISP summarizes the votes and announces the chosen pricing scheme for the upcoming billing cycle. During the vote, users can motivate other users to vote with them. We assume that users can utilize financial incentives (side-payments) to sweeten the deal for others, while still profiting from the outcome of the vote. Third, users use their subscription and pay according to the implemented pricing scheme chosen by the user community. We assume that the decision on the applied billing method does not affect user behavior during the billing cycle. Note that in the rest of the paper we put the voting at the beginning of the billing period because of conformity; however, putting it at the end of the billing period would anneal the need for the above assumption on user behavior. The game This section presents a game-theoretical representation of the user-influenced pricing game. Suppose that there is a single ISP on the Internet access market selling a single-tier service. There are n customers, each of them with a fixed monthly traffic amount τ i measured in bytes. The ISP s goal is to get a monthly revenue of R while serving a traffic volume of T, and it does not care about how users share this total cost. The ISP lets the users decide on the applied pricing scheme: it can be either flat-rate (F) or usage-based (U). The simple majority wins and their preferred pricing scheme will be used to bill all customers. We use a cooperative game with transferable payoffs to model this decision-making process..1 Players Today s typical ISP has a very diverse set of users. Some users download massive amounts of data via peer-to-peer file sharing systems such as BitTorrent, watch streaming videos frequently through sites like YouTube and play multiplayer online games (e.g., World of WarCraft). Those customers are considered heavy users, they can impose a monthly traffic amount of several hundred of gigabytes on the ISP s network. An other category consists of light users: they just browse the Web and send a couple of s. Light users usually have a monthly traffic amount around 5-10 gigabytes. Somewhat forgotten, between the above categories are people who use their Internet access in an average sense. That means an occasional movie download, contacting their relatives via some VoIP application (e.g., Skype), using one or two social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, to keep in touch with friends and colleagues. Those customers are referred to as medium users. These three groups have different interests when it comes to pricing schemes applied. Obviously, heavy users want to pay a fixed monthly rate, since their traffic volume is high, so paying per byte would result in huge bills for them. Conversely, light users are interested in paying on-the-go. Since it is likely that they never really consume the bandwidth equivalent of the flat-rate price, they prefer to pay proportionally to their traffic volume. We assume that medium users are indifferent: they pay more or less the same price regardless of the applied pricing scheme. To reduce the complexity of the game and to provide intuitive results, we model this voting as a three-player game [10]. Player 1 represents the heavy users preferring flat-rate pricing. Let the ratio of heavy users among all consumers be 0 w 1 1. Similarly, the ratio of the whole monthly traffic volume imposed on the ISP by heavy users is 0 t 1 1. Player 2 stands for the class of medium users. Their ratio compared to the whole customer population is 0 w 2 1. They generate a traffic ratio of 0 t 2 1. Player represents the class of light users preferring usage-based pricing. Their ratio among all users is 0 w 1, while their traffic ratio is 0 t 1. Note that we classify every user as heavy, medium or light, therefore w 1 + w 2 +w = 1 (all users are represented), furthermore t 1 +t 2 +t = 1 (all traffic is accounted for). An interesting question is how the actual values of parameters w i and t i should be chosen. We do not make any further assumptions in our analysis to maintain the generality of our model, but we discuss realistic parameters in Section 6. Certainly, we lose some behavioral details by introducing our assumptions and simplifications, e.g., by assuming that medium users are indifferent to the actual pricing scheme. Therefore, our results are intended to be qualitative, i.e., we concentrate on the rough behavior of the pricing mechanism and the players..2 Strategies and the characteristic function We treat the user-inferred pricing problem as a majority voting game. In our case there is one significant difference to a general cooperative game: the strongly opposed interests of two players, i.e., heavy and light users, induce some noncooperative aspects referred to as quarreling. The possible coalitions in a general three-player cooperative game are: {{1}, {2}, {}, {12}, {1}, {2}, {12}}. In our game, heavy users (Player 1) and light users (Player ) are strategically opposed, thus they will never be a part of the same coalition. Additionally, since there are only two pricing methods offered by the ISP, medium users (Player 2) will always cast a vote, either for flat-rate or usage-based pricing. These constraints eliminate the chance of forming a grand coalition, the coalition of {2} and also the coalition of the two extremists. The remaining possible coalitions are: {{1}, {}, {12}, {2}}. Heavy users clearly choose flat-rate pricing (F), on the other hand, light users always prefer usage-based pricing (U). Since Player 2 is indifferent in choosing either side, the other two players have to give him some incentive to join forces. We model this as a side-payment, which reduces the costs of Player 2. Giving a large side-payment can be crucial to winning the voting game, nevertheless none of the two quarreling players can pay more for the vote of Player 2 than their payoff expected from the ISP implementing their preferred pricing scheme. Heavy users can offer a side-payment s 1 in the range [0, (t 1 w 1 )R) S 1, where S 1 is the strategy set of Player 1 in the voting game. It is easy to see that the upper limit of the side-payment corresponds to Player 1 s profit due to flat-rate pricing. Similarly, the side-payment offered by Player is s [0, (w t )R) S, where the upper limit is Player s profit due to usage-based pricing and S is the strategy set of Player. Considering Player 2, we assume that the vote and the side-payment are exchanged at the same time ensuring that Player 2 can only accept one side-payment and it has to vote accordingly. So Player 2 s strategy set is S 2 {F, U} S1 S, i.e., all functions mapping side-payments to votes. We can now define the payoffs of each player formally. The payoff of heavy users (Player 1) is: where and Π 1 (s 1, s 2, s ) = (t 1 w 1 )RI 1 s 1 I 2 (1) I 1 = { 1 if Player 1 wins 0 otherwise I 2 = The payoff of light users (Player ) is: { 1 if s2 = F 0 if s 2 = U Π (s 1, s 2, s ) = (w t )R(1 I 1 ) s (1 I 2 ) (2) Note that indicator variables are complemented due to opposing conditions. Player 2 s payoff is the following: { s1 if s Π 2 (s 1, s 2, s ) = 2 = F if s 2 = U s () Now we formulate the characteristic function using the standard approach, keeping in mind that certain coalitions of players are not reasonable because of quarreling. Those coalitions receive zero utility, formally: ν(h) = 0 C / {{1}, {}, {12}, {2}} and H 2 N. (4) For the reasonable coalitions the corresponding utilities are: ν({1}) = max min Π 1 (s 1, s 2, s ) s 1 s 2,s ν({}) = max min Π (s 1, s 2, s ) s s 1,s 2 ν({12}) = max s 1,s 2 min s [Π 1 (s 1, s 2, s ) + Π 2 (s 1, s 2, s )] (5) ν({2}) = max s 2,s min s 1 [Π 2 (s 1, s 2, s ) + Π (s 1, s 2, s )] Table 1. Characteristic function for the user-influenced pricing game (w 1 and t 1 are the population ratio and traffic ratio of heavy users, while w and t are those of the light users, respectively) Characteristic function Heavy user regime Balanced regime Light user regime (w 1 1/2) (w 1 1/2, w 1/2) (w 1/2) ν({1}) (t 1 w 1 )R 0 0 ν({}) 0 0 (w t )R ν({12}) (t 1 w 1 )R (t 1 w 1 )R 0 ν({2}) 0 (w t )R (w t )R ν(h) for all other H 2 N Using Equations 4 and 5 we compile the characteristic functions presented in Table 1. Different columns represent different user distributions in the population. If heavy users are a majority (w 1 1/2) they will dominate voting (heavy user regime). If light users are a majority (w 1/2) they will be the dominant player (light user regime). If neither of the above are true (w 1 1/2, w 1/2, but due to constraints of w i, w 1 + w 2 1/2, w 2 + w 1/2), the players enter a balanced regime, where the outcome of the pricing game will be decided by the offered side-payments. 4 Equilibrium solutions Here we derive the equilibrium solutions for the user-influenced pricing game G. Since G includes players that will never form a coalition, we employ the notion of ψ-allowable coalition structures [12]. Let P be a partition of N, called a coalitional structure. The possible partitions are: {{1}, {2}, {}}, {{12}, {}}, {{1}, {2}}, {{12}}. Then we define the set of allowable coalitional structures (ψ(p)) that satisfy the constraints imposed by quarreling. For G ψ(p) = ψ = {({12}, {}), ({1}, {2})}. (6) For a given P ψ, let X(P) be the set of imputations as follows: X(P) = {(x 1, x 2, x ) R i H x i = ν(h) for all H P and x i ν({i}) for i = 1, 2, } (7) Intuitively an imputation is a distribution of the maximum side-payment such that each player receives at least the same amount of money that they can get if they choose to stay alone (individual rationality), and each coalition in the structure P receives the total side-payment they can achieve (group rationality). Now, we restrict the set of imputations to the core C(P). The core is defined to be the set of undominated imputations. To put it differently, the core is the set of imputations under which no coalition has a value greater than the sum of its members payoffs. Formally: C(P) = { (x 1, x 2, x ) X(P) i H x i ν(h) for all H {J P P ψ} (8) Considering our game G, Equation 8 is equivalent to the standard core (since ν(h) = 0 for unreasonable coalitions), so { C(P) = (x 1, x 2, x ) X(P) } x i ν(h) for all H 2 N (9) i H } As it can be noticed the core is dependent on a certain coalitional structure P. For us to determine which structure will emerge when playing the game, we define a ψ-stable pair [x, P]: [x, P] x C(P), P ψ (10) Now applying this solution to the characteristic function ν(h) in Table 1, we have three different cases depending on user regimes. 4.1 Heavy user regime In this case heavy users are dominant in the population, thus w 1 1/2. The only possible imputation is x = ((t 1 w 1 )R, 0, 0) hence there are two ψ-stable pairs: [((t 1 w 1 )R, 0, 0), {{12}, {}}] and [((t 1 w 1 )R, 0, 0), {{1}, {2}}] Note that both coalitional structures are possible, since it does not matter which side medium users take. In words, this means heavy users dominate the voting, no side-payment is transferred. Considering the individual user s point of view, let c i denote the cost of a single user i. Flat-rate pricing is implemented by the ISP, Internet access costs are shared per capita, hence the cost for a single user is independent of his traffic and equal for every user is c i = R n for all i N (11) 4.2 Light user regime Here light users have the absolute majority across the population (w 1/2). Following the same line of thought as in Section 4.1 we derive the ψ-stable pairs for this case: [(0, 0, (w t )R), {{1}, {2}}] and [(0, 0, (w t )R), {{12}, {}}] As expected light users dominate the voting, no side-payment is made to medium users. From a single user s perspective, let τ i denote the traffic volume of user i. Since usage-based pricing is implemented by the ISP, Internet access costs are shared proportionally to traffic volume. Therefore the access cost for user i is 4. Balanced regime c i = τ i R for all i N. (12) T In this case cooperation is explicitly needed to form a winning coalition, since w 1 1/2, w 1/2, and w 1 +w 2 1/2, w +w 2 1/2. Side-payments determine the outcome of the voting game. For easier analysis let s max 1 = (t 1 w 1 )R and s max = (w t )R be the maximum reasonable side-payment possibly offered by Player 1 and Player, respectively. The imputations and the core for any s max 1, s max are : X({1}, {2}) = {(x 1, x 2, x ) R x 1 = 0, x 2 0, x 0, x 2 + x = s max {, if s max 1 s C({1}, {2}) = max (0, s max 1 + ǫ, s max s max 1 ǫ), if s max s max 1 where 0 ǫ s max s max 1. Furthermore: } X({12}, {}) = {(x 1, x 2, x ) R x 1 0, x 2 0, x = 0, x 1 + x 2 = s max {, if s max 1 s C({12}, {}) = max (s max 1 s max ǫ, s max + ǫ, 0), if s max 1 s max 1 } where 0 ǫ s max 1 s max. Let us first study the coalitional structure ({1}, {2}). The core is empty if the maximum side-payment of Player is smaller than that of Player 1. This is due to the fact that Player 2 wants to form a coalition with Player 1 and get more money than s max, but the constraint on imputations prevents this. On the other hand, if the maximum side-payment of Player is greater than Player 1 s, than the core is non-empty with Player (the light users) winning, and the game G is balanced. Player pays s max 1 +ǫ to Player 2 and retains s max s max 1 ǫ. A similar (but opposing) explanation applies for the coalitional structure {{12}, {}}. The solution of the user-influenced pricing game is given as ψ-stable pairs in Table 2. Note that the ψ-stable concept does not restrict the possibilities. In the first row of the table heavy users win (flat-rate pricing is chosen), but a sidepayment of at least s max has to be paid. According to the third row, light users win by paying at least s m
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