I spent the past week tethering my computer to the mobile internet connection on my phone. It was awful. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
It took people in rich countries several years to crawl from slow dial-up connections (remember those?) to ISDN lines, to true broadband. It is by now conventional wisdom that the next billion (or two billion or five billion) people to come online will do so using smartphones and mobile broadband. Indeed, it is already happening (see chart below).
Yet many of these new internet users suffer from obstacles such as intermittent electricity supply, expensive data plans (compared to average local wages), a lack of local content or language support, outdated devices and weak or non-existent financial infrastructure. Worst of all, they must put up with achingly slow internet connections.
Anybody who cares about the internet or wants to understand how it should evolve in the coming years would do well to understand how the vast majority of the world uses it. So I did—though, admittedly, only because I had moved house and was waiting for broadband to be installed.
How slow is slow? On the 3G network I’ve been using in London, average download speeds hovered at 3Mbps. That’s still better than 3G download speeds in the US, which average under 2Mbps, according to OpenSignal, a network analytics firm. I’m spoiled (my previous connection ran at speeds of up to 14Mbps), so I wouldn’t call that broadband. Neither would the United States, which in 2010 updated its definition of broadband to a connection with a minimum download speed of 4Mbps (pdf, p.18). Other parts of the world are more forgiving. The Indian telecoms regulator only last October upgraded its own definition of broadband—to 512 Kbps, or half of 1 Mbps.
Back to basics
Here’s how my week went: I got a lot done. I read two books. I caught up with friends. I watched more TV. Music left my life.
In one week, I consumed 4 gigabytes of data, or about as much as a DVD holds. When I got back on (50Mbps!) broadband, I used 2 gigabytes in 24 hours.
YouTube became a no-go zone. It worked, but loaded slowly and paused to buffer constantly. Spotify wasn’t great either, mostly because I was generally also trying to load other things for work at the same time. It quickly became clear that I was better off listening, on repeat, to the very few MP3s on my computer. Netflix, Hulu and iPlayer? I didn’t even try. They were slow enough with my previous connection—top speed 14Mbps—for me to know that there was no point.
If I was desperate, I could stop tethering and watch videos on my mobile phone. That made them load faster and look better. YouTube, like most big video-streaming services, detects your bandwidth and the size of your player, and streams video at an appropriate resolution. The company would rather serve lower-quality video that loads quickly than a high-quality one that doesn’t load at all. But since that still involved some stops and starts and buffering, I couldn’t be bothered. Mobile broadband, despite the name, simply isn’t up to scratch for the modern web.
A poorer web
It’s not just video. How images appear also depends on your bandwidth. They looked awful. Big pictures were blocky. Thumbnail-sized ones were indecipherable. My browser, Chrome, helpfully told me that shift-R would improve the quality of a selected image and shift-A the quality of all the images on a page, which is good to know but too time-consuming to practice. And that’s just static pictures. Every so often I would get distracted by Buzzfeed, only to leave immediately. Waiting for an animated GIF to load on a slow connection is like watching a movie by manually examining each frame. Perhaps that’s why it took more than 25 years after the GIF format was invented for it to become a cultural phenomenon.
Even text-based websites gave me trouble. LinkedIn profiles—essential when you’re about to interview someone you’ve never heard of before—refused to load. Facebook would often serve up only a handful of my friends’ posts. I quickly learnt to avoid any website with lots of bells and whistles. Things like cloud storage stopped making sense. Using Google Docs was always a worry—what if I suddenly lost my connection? The modern web is just not built for bad internet connections.
The road ahead
The internet’s most successful companies know this. That is why Google is building its own network of fiber-optic cables and Facebook is making sure that its apps are able to work with bad connections. WhatsApp’s founders carry old Nokia devices so they understand what their users are experiencing. (But WhatsApp is an exception; not all start-ups are so enlightened. Some services are busy providing solutions to problems that never existed—and are rewarded for it.)
The biggest firms are also busy trying to get everybody online using existing technology. Facebook is pumping money into internet.org, a non-profit that aims to bring the internet to everybody in the world. It recently bought a drone company so that, it is widely speculated, it can provide internet to remote areas by flying drones over them (an idea that strikes many as ridiculous). Google has its own non-profit and its own flying internet plan, called Project Loon.
But even if these projects succeed in bringing vast chunks of humanity online, the fact remains that the internet as experienced by someone in New York is vastly different from that by someone in Mumbai, let alone a yak village somewhere in Tajikistan. Indeed, even New York City is no South Korea: Danah Boyd, a sociologist, writes in her new book on teens and social networks, It’s Complicated, about a girl who uses her Android smartphone only for Twitter and Facebook. “It was possible to surf the web on her phone, but it was time-consuming and frustrating,” Boyd writes. “If she really needed something, she texted her friends to see if anyone knew the answer or had access to a ‘real’ computer.”
Life changes when you come online for the first time—even if it is through services that provide slow, ad-infested, limited internet. But as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales told Wired this month, “Until we have faster broadband speeds and access across the whole world, we can only dream of the web’s potential.”