Goodnight, Internet: USC researchers chart when the web sleeps

An image showing a snapshot of Internet usage around the world.
An image showing a snapshot of Internet usage around the world.
University of Southern California

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While you gaze into the screen of your phone, computer or tablet, ponder this:

The Internet sleeps. 

And it not only sleeps, but in many places has predictable slumber patterns, according to new research from the University of Southern California.

Computer scientists there tracked web usage across the globe by sending small messages to roughly 950 million Internet addresses. They did this every 11 minutes for 2 months.

By the end, they had a good picture of where and when the world was logged on.

Researcher John Heidemann led the project. He said places like the U.S. and Western Europe are always connected to the web thanks to cable and DSL modems.

"Even if we turn our computers on and off inside our houses that modem is still on," he said.

But in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, connectivity seems to mimic the sleep and awake patterns of people.

"So every day it would go up and then it would go down and then it would go back up," he said.

Heidemann’s team was the first to do this sort of web use survey. One reason for the sleep-wake cycle outside North America and Western Europe is that people elsewhere could still mostly be using dial-up connections.

The researchers also found a correlation between a country's gross domestic product and its level of web connectivity.

In particular, countries with a lower GDP tend to have this sort of sleep-wake cycle and countries with a higher GDP are usually connected 24 hours a day.

Heidemann says it's important to understand how the Internet is currently being used around the world so researchers can track changes as more of the globe connects to the web.

He also said that this study could help researchers monitor large Internet outages, like the kind that occurred on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy.

The study will also help policy makers and communication companies better understand the difference between a sleeping Internet and a more serious outage.

"You don't want to confuse a network that just is sleeping with a network that is actually having problems," Heidemann said.