Investigating Internet Usage in Rural Africa

Summary: In the developed world Internet connectivity is nearly ubiquitous. However, the reality is that only about 35% of the world’s population has Internet access. In rural areas of the developing world, connectivity is typically available though only a small number of isolated community networks. Our work aims to better understand the needs and the operating environment in the developing regions and design wireless solutions specifically tailored to bridging the digital divide.



David L. Johnson
Veljko Pejovic
Mariya Zheleva


Prof. Elizabeth Belding

Our efforts can be roughly divided in two major areas:

1) Understanding the Internet usage in the developing world

2) Network traffic locality in a rural African villages

Understanding the Internet usage in the developing world

Existing rural area networks in the developing world are plagued with problems such as low quality of service and under or over utilization. For better understand the problem, we gather and analyze network traces from a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia. We supplement our analysis with on-site interviews from Macha, Zambia and Dwesa, South Africa, another rural community that hosts a local wireless network. The results reveal that Internet traffic in rural Africa differs significantly from the developed world. We observe  a dominance of web-based traffic, as opposed to peer-to-peer traffic common in urban areas. Application-wise, online social networks are the most popular, while the majority of bandwidth is consumed by large operating system updates. Our analysis also uncovers numerous network anomalies, such as significant malware traffic. Finally, we find a strong feedback loop between network performance and user behavior.


V. Pejovic, D. L. Johnson, M. Zheleva,E. M. Belding, L. Parks and G. van Stam
The Bandwidth Divide: Obstacles to Efficient Broadband Adoption in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa.
International Journal of Communication, Vol 6 (2012).

D. L. Johnson, E. M. Belding, and G. van Stam
Network Traffic Locality in a Rural African Village
ICTD'12, Atlanta, GA, March 2012

D. L. Johnson, V. Pejovic, E. M. Belding, and G. van Stam
Traffic Characterization and Internet Usage in Rural Africa
WWW'11, Hyderabad, India, March 2011

D. L. Johnson, E. M. Belding, K. Almeroth and G. van Stam
Internet usage and performance analysis of a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia
NSDR'10, San Francisco, CA, June 2010

The Internet is evolving from a system of connections between humans and machines to a new paradigm of social connection. However, it is still dominated by a hub and spoke architecture with inter-connectivity between users typically requiring connections to a common server on the Internet. This creates a large amount of traffic that must traverse an Internet gateway, even when users communicate with each other in a local network. Nowhere is this inefficiency more pronounced than in rural areas with low-bandwidth connectivity to the Internet. Our previous work in a rural village in Macha, Zambia showed that web traffic, and social networking in particular, are dominant services. In this work we use a recent network trace, from this same village, to explore the degree of local user-to-user interaction in the village. Extraction of a social graph, using instant message interactions on Facebook, reveals that 54% of the messages are between local users. Traffic analysis highlights that the potential spare capacity of the local network is not utilized for direct local communication between users even though indirect communication between local users is routed through services on the Internet. These findings build a strong motivation for a new rural network architecture that places services that enable user-to-user interaction and file sharing in the village.


D.L. Johnson, V. Pejovic, E.M. Belding, G. van Stam,
Network traffic locality in a rural African village,
ICTD'12, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2012
Poster: Network traffic locality in a rural African village


We collaborate closely with the LinkNet organization in Macha, Zambia, lead by Gertjan van Stam, as well as the Meraka Institute, CSIR, in Pretoria, South Africa.