Arnt Gulbrandsen
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2012-02-15

The Internet is not growing faster

I feel like ranting. Yes, my DSL connection this year is faster than it was five years ago. Yes, the core speeds are growing ever faster. No, the network itself is not growing faster, it's growing bigger.

This is a three-part rant. First, slow connections aren't always being upgraded, people are also switching from fast to slow connections. Second, often what counts is the speed you can rely on, rather than the heavily advertised peak download speed. Third, new 2G networks are being deployed in many parts of the world, bringing many new slowly-connected users to the internet.

Switching from fast to slow: When an iphone/android user picks up the phone to look at Wikipedia instead of using the 10-30-50Mbps DSL connection at home or the fiber at work, that's a migration from fast wire to slow phone. A partial migration, to be sure, but there are hundreds of millions of android/iphone users. It's not an effect that can be ignored.

Reliable speed, not peak: In some cases (big downloads for instance) peak speeds matter. In many more cases, what matters is the speed the user can rely on, and that's the lowest speed that frequently occurs.

I wondered about why that was so slow in my case. My telco advertises enormously fast acccess, so this winter I gathered telemetry data from my own phone. The answer turns out to be that my phone gets enormously fast rates almost all the time, e.g. when I sleep, shower, eat or sit in my office. When I go somewhere the phone has highly variable access quality. It falls back to EDGE every day, even though I mostly stay within central Munich, hardly a network backwater.

This means that the speed I personally can rely on is EDGE, about 100kbps. The average speed is 14Mbps or so, but the speed I can rely on having when I'm away from my desk is something like 100kbps.

100kbps is still a great improvement from what I had twenty years ago, since I now have that almost everywhere and in 1992 I only had that in a few locations. It's just that the great improvement is a range extension, it's not a speed increase.

A digression. Some applications, particular ones the user doesn't pay for, can get away with not working sometimes. Some applications can get away with telling the user sorry, this doesn't work, have a fine day. Youtube springs to mind.

New slow networks: Ericsson has installed a lovely new network for Netcom in Norway recently, with peak speeds of 42Mbps or something. Wonderful. At the same time Ericsson also installed a GPRS/EDGE network in Bangladesh (or was it West Bengal?) to bring 100kbps speeds to tens of millions of new users.

Again, peak speeds increase, but the big change is a range extension. More people are able to access the internet in more locations.