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Spreading Technology

UCSB Prof Improving Internet in Africa


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Internet access is a fundamental human right. Right?

Here, in the U.S. we can access the web almost anywhere through any one of our little gadgets. Whether we pay for it on our phones, cable, or DSL, or get it at a coffee shop, this access is instrumental in many of our lives. Simply said, it would be almost impossible to live without the ease and efficiency that the internet brings to our lives.

And there are those who believe that bringing internet access to the developing world would help give those living there a higher standard of living, in many ways. This is where Dr. Elizabeth Belding, professor and vice chair at UCSB’s Department of Computer Science, and her team come in.

Belding, winner of a National Science Foundation Career award, was the first speaker at this years Center for Information Technology and Society Fall Lecture Series at UCSB. Her lecture was titled “Bridging the Digital Divide.”

Beginning by highlighting a four-way correlation between electricity infrastructure, internet access, illiteracy, and poverty rates, Belding made the case that wireless networking would serve as a catalyst for social mobility and higher standards of living.

In a constant effort to bring internet to remote areas of the world, Belding and other researchers at UCSB are identifying problems like low-bandwidth speeds, long distances between wireless nodes, and the high costs of internet connectivity. They are figuring out some neat ways to make rural African networks more efficient.

Much of the information in her lecture is available in published papers online, and it was based predominantly on her research in Macha, Zambia.

In order to figure out how web traffic could be better regulated, this team of computer scientists anonymously monitored web traffic flow. They came out findings that could significantly alleviate bandwidth congestion, infrastructure problems, and other issues.

As Belding explained it, many of the bandwidth issues identified in their research, have relatively simple solutions, once they are analyzed and understood.

With regards to sites visited, the team’s URL analysis showed that Facebook came out on top in Macha—getting more than 20 percent of all domain hits—with Google at about eight percent.

When it comes to traffic type and sizes, much of the information being sent between the individual computer and the greater internet, 28 percent of it, was in the form of binaries (compilations), usually in the form of Windows updates and other packet distributions. With a total of 3,162 YouTube hits during the two week research span, the top 15 ranked videos made up 75% of the total requests.

A high percentage of the information requested for each individual computer (requests sent out of the rural network, beamed by a satellite to somewhere on the internet, beamed back and received by the original computer) can be “cached,” that is, saved, on a server hosting the local network. When a YouTube news video about Macha, a local Facebook status update, or a Microsoft update is cached, the information is more quickly and easily accessible.

There are already success stories coming out of the Macha community. Jobs like data-entry via internet are becoming more widespread, and farmers are learning new techniques and expanding their knowledge about different crops, like sunflower seeds for example, to produce more income for their families, Belding said.

A major aspect of this endeavor, said Belding in her closing statements, is to “train local populace to run the network and find customized techniques to each local environment.”

Billy Collins & Aimee Mann

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