Internet Bandwidth Upgrade: Implications on Performance and Usage in Rural Zambia

Mariya Zheleva, Paul Schmitt, Morgan Vigil, Elizabeth Belding


Broadband Internet access has become a critical part of socioeconomic prosperity; however, only six in 100 inhabitants have access to broadband in developing countries. This limited access is driven predominately by subscriptions in urban areas. In rural developing communities, access is often provided through slow satellite or other low-bandwidth long-distance wireless links, if available at all. As a result, the quality of Internet access is often poor and, at times, unusable. In this article we study the performance and usage implications of an Internet access upgrade, from a 256 Kbps satellite link to a 2 Mbps terrestrial wireless link in rural Zambia. While usage did not immediately change, performance improved soon after the upgrade. By three months post-upgrade, subscribers began to use the faster connection for more bandwidth-hungry applications such as video streaming and content upload. This change in use resulted in a dramatic deterioration of network performance, whereby the average round-trip time doubled, the number of bytes associated with failed uploads increased by 222% and failed downloads by 91%. Due to this deteriorated performance, the use of more bandwidth-hungry applications as observed three months post-upgrade did not persist over the long term. As uploads became largely unsuccessful, users stopped initiating uploads and, instead, switched to using the increased capacity for heavier downloads. Thus, while an Internet access upgrade should translate to improved performance and user experience, in rural environments with limited access speed and growing demand, it can bring unexpected consequences.

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