If you are well-prepared to take up the challenge, you will get to experience a moment where you are stepping forward to help build a better world. Personally, I felt exactly that when about a month ago, after a long and (COVID) complicated visa process, I joined Cloudflare as a Systems Engineer in Austin, Texas.
In the early 2000s, I experienced while travelling throughout the Benin Republic (my home country) and West Africa more generally, how challenging accessing the Internet was. I recall that, as students, we were often connecting to the web from cybercafés through limited bandwidth purchased at high cost. It was a luxury to have a broadband connection at home. When access was free (say, from high school premises or at university) we still had bandwidth constraints, and often we could not connect for long. The Internet can efficiently help tackle issues encountered (in areas like education, health, communications, ...) by populations in similar regions, but the lack of easy and affordable access, made it difficult to leverage. It is in such a context that I chose to pursue my studies in telecoms, with the hope of being able to somehow give back to the community by helping improve Internet access in the region.
My internship at Euphorbia Sarl, a local ISP, introduced me to the process of designing, finding, and deploying suitable technologies to satisfy the interconnection needs for the region. But more than that, it showed me first hand the day-to-day challenges encountered by network operators in Africa. It highlighted the need for more research on the Internet in developing regions, most notably measurements studies, to identify the root causes of the lack of connectivity in the (West) African region.
It was with this experience that I then pursued my doctoral studies at IMDEA Networks Institute and UC3M (Spain) and collaborated with stakeholders and researchers to investigate the characteristics and routing dynamics of the Internet in Africa; and then my postdoc at CAIDA/UCSD (US), looking at the occurrence of network congestion worldwide, and the impact of the SACS cable deployment between Angola and Brazil on Internet routing. While studying the network in those underserved and geographically large regions, we noticed that much of the web content was still served from the US and Europe. We also identified a lack of physical infrastructure and interconnections between local and global networks, alongside a lack of local content, as the root causes of packet-tromboning, high transit costs, and the persistently poor quality of service delivered to the users in the region.
Of course, local communities, network operators, stakeholders, and Internet bodies such as the Internet Society or Packet Clearing House have been working towards bridging this gap. But there is still much room for improvement. I believe this (hopefully soon) post-pandemic era — where more and more activities are shifting online — represents the best opportunity to solve this persistent issue. COVID has forced us to reflect, and one of the critical questions I asked myself was: after so many years of research, how can I — like a frontline doctor or nurse in the pandemic — actively and effectively help mitigate these connectivity issues, creating a better Internet for everyone, notably for those in underserved areas? The answer for me was to switch out of academia into tech. But which company?
As I progressed through the interview process with Cloudflare, it soon became clear that this was the answer to my question above. I discovered that Cloudflare’s values and mission were very much aligned with my own. I also loved the culture, how welcoming and diverse the team is, as well as how attentive and close to us the C-level is. I was impressed by the network footprint and, notably by its spread regardless of the Internet region, especially the growing number of data centers in Latin America and Africa. I had to travel back to West Africa during my visa process, and my experience there only reinforced what I already knew: we need more local content in developing regions, we need more support for local communities, and we need to better enable developing regions.
Fast-forward to my starting date, I was pleased to find out that Cloudflare frequently organizes innovation weeks — like Birthday Week — during which the company gives back to the community. There have been several noteworthy initiatives, including Project Fair Shot to enable communities to vaccinate fairly, and Project Galileo, protecting at-risk public interest groups.
But what has me truly excited is Project Pangea, which launches today as part of Impact Week. Project Pangea helps improve security and connectivity for community networks at no cost. Cloudflare’s network spans 200+ cities worldwide; it has one of the largest number of interconnects/peers worldwide. It also delivers a state of the art DNS service with privacy in mind, and an intelligent routing system that constantly learns about the best and least congested Internet routes worldwide from and towards any region in the world. My research on Internet performance in developing regions makes me believe that community networks — and their end users — will benefit tremendously from such a partnership. It is so exciting to be part of such an amazing journey, which is why I am sharing my excitement through this post.
I would like to conclude by making an appeal to all stakeholders in developing regions — including network operators, and bodies such as the ISOC and the RIRs. Please do not hesitate to enquire about the Project Pangea. I truly believe that Cloudflare will be a tremendous partner to you, and your network — and your community — will benefit from using them.