New Tools to get Your Smartphone up to Speed

David Choffnes

“Check the map,” says the voice in the com­mer­cial. “Verizon’s super fast 4GLTE is the most reli­able and in more places than any other 4G network.”

But is it truly the most depen­dent, the most widespread?

In fact, there’s no way of knowing: “There’s absolutely no useful quan­ti­ta­tive data for com­par­ison pur­poses,” according to mobile sys­tems expert Dave Choffnes, an assis­tant pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. And that means we have no con­trol over the per­for­mance and reli­a­bility of our mobile Internet use.

Last year, the number of people using mobile devices to access the Internet sur­passed the number of people using desktop com­puters to log online. While “most eye­ball time is on devices,” Choffnes said, mobile per­for­mance is nowhere near what we expect from our desktop expe­ri­ences. Researchers like him would need much more data to even begin bringing mobile Internet use up to speed—literally.

“Ide­ally we’d have mea­sure­ments from every­where on every net­work all the time,” he said. “And then we’d want to cor­re­late that with where we use our phones and what appli­ca­tions we use on our phones. And then you can imagine with all that infor­ma­tion we could spit out a number and say this car­rier is going to give you the best overall performance.”

But col­lecting that data is easier said than done—presumably, mobile providers would have done it by now if it weren’t. One hurdle is that users need to opt-​​in to donating their data, explained Choffnes, since doing so means giving up some of their expen­sive data-​​plan as well as pre­cious bat­tery life. As a result, he said, “we have to give an incentive.”

To that end, Choffnes has cre­ated a code that could send data to the devel­opers of a mobile app once it has been installed on a smart­phone. Devel­opers could incor­po­rate this code into what­ever apps they create, but users will only opt in to those that are the most enter­taining and useful.

For instance, Choffnes envi­sions an app that would allow two users to pit their mobile speeds against each other. Or one that pro­vides real-​​time infor­ma­tion about a phone’s per­for­mance to inform which net­work provider one should choose.

In another project, which he’s calling Meddle, Choffnes is using the same approach to incen­tivize users into donating their data for research. Along with lim­ited per­for­mance and reli­a­bility con­trol, mobile users also lack con­trol over how their apps share their data with the rest of the Internet.

Meddle is not itself an app, but rather a proxy net­work through which all of a phone’s traffic must pass before accessing a web­site or app. Tra­di­tion­ally, the pri­vacy (or lack thereof) of that journey is gov­erned by the app through which the user is trav­eling. Meddle encrypts every­thing it sends and receives, which instantly improves a user’s pri­vacy experience.

Addi­tion­ally, Meddle allows users to view their activity—and the activity of their apps—online. When we click “agree” to an app’s terms, we often give it per­mis­sion to share our data with other parts of the web. Meddle users can view a map of that activity and shut down any unwanted data sharing, pro­vided it doesn’t inter­fere with the app’s functionality.

In exchange for these improve­ments, users agree to share all their activity data with Choffnes, but only after it’s been scrubbed for anonymity. Choffnes then uses it to inves­ti­gate the per­for­mance, reli­a­bility, and pri­vacy of mobile net­work traffic. “If we can’t see what devices are doing, we can’t opti­mize them to work well all the time,” he said.