I Spent a Week Using Mobile Internet Only, and So Can You — Quartz

I spent the last week connecting my computer to my phone’s mobile internet connection. It was horrible. I recommend it unreservedly.

It took many years for people in wealthy countries to move from slow dial-up connections (remember those?) to ISDN lines, to true broadband. It is now commonly accepted that the next billion (or two billion or five billion) people to go online will do so using smartphones and mobile broadband. Indeed, this is already happening (see table below).

More than twice as many people have a mobile broadband connection than a fixed Internet connection.

Yet many of these new internet users suffer from barriers such as intermittent power supply, expensive data plans (compared to average local wages), lack of local content or language support, outdated devices and weak or non-existent financial infrastructure. Worse still, they have to put up with extremely slow internet connections.

Anyone who cares about the Internet or wants to understand how it is likely to evolve in the coming years would do well to understand how the vast majority of the world uses it. So I did, although admittedly only because I had moved and was waiting for broadband to be installed.

How slow is it? On the 3G network I use in London, average download speeds hover around 3 Mbps. That’s still better than 3G download speeds in the United States, which average less than 2 Mbps, according to OpenSignal, a network analytics firm. I’m spoiled (my previous connection ran at speeds up to 14Mbps), so I wouldn’t call it broadband. Neither does the United States, which in 2010 updated its definition of broadband to a connection with a at 512 Kbps, which is half of 1 Mbps.

Back to basics

Here’s how my week went: I did a lot. 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, which is about as much as a DVD contains. When I switched back to broadband (50 Mbps!), I used 2 gigabytes in 24 hours.

YouTube has become a no-go zone. It worked, but loaded slowly and paused to buffer constantly. Spotify wasn’t great either, mostly because I was usually trying to load other stuff for work at the same time. It soon became clear that I had better listen, on repeat, to the very rare MP3s on my computer. Netflix, Hulu and iPlayer? I didn’t even try. They were slow enough with my previous connection – 14mbps max speed – that I knew there was no point.

If I was desperate, I could stop tethering and watch videos on my cell phone. This made them faster to load and more beautiful. YouTube, like most major video streaming services, detects your bandwidth and player size, and streams the video at an appropriate resolution. The company prefers to stream a low quality video that loads quickly rather than a high quality video that does not load at all. But since it still involved stopping and starting and buffering, I couldn’t be bothered. Mobile broadband, despite its name, just doesn’t live up to the modern web.

YouTube can automatically choose the best speed for your connection.

A poorer web

It’s not just video. The appearance of images also depends on your bandwidth. They looked awful. Large images were in blocks. The 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 would improve the quality of all images on a page, which is good to know but too time-consuming to practice. And these are just static images. Occasionally I was 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 reviewing each frame. Perhaps that’s why it took more than 25 years after the invention of the GIF format for it to become a cultural phenomenon.

Even text-based websites gave me a hard time. LinkedIn profiles, essential when you’re about to interview someone you’ve never heard of before, refused to load. Facebook often only served a handful of messages from my friends. I quickly learned to avoid any website with lots of bells and whistles. Things like cloud storage stopped making sense. Using Google Docs has always been a hassle. What if I suddenly lose my connection? The modern web is simply not designed for poor internet connections.

The road ahead

The most successful Internet businesses know this. That’s why Google builds its own network of fiber optic cables and Facebook makes sure its apps are able to work with bad connections. The founders of WhatsApp carry around old Nokia devices in order to understand what their users are going through. (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.)

Despite the rapid growth, billions of people remain offline.

The biggest companies are also trying to get everyone online using existing technology. Facebook is pumping money into internet.org, a non-profit organization that aims to bring the internet to everyone in the world. He recently bought a drone company so that, according to many speculations, he could provide internet to remote areas by flying drones above them (an idea that seems ludicrous to many). Google has its own non-profit organization and its own flying internet plan, called Project Loon.

But even if these projects are successful in bringing vast swaths of humanity online, the fact remains that the Internet, as experienced by someone in New York, is very different from that experienced by someone in Mumbai, let alone a village of yaks somewhere in Tajikistan. Indeed, even New York is not South Korea: Danah Boyd, a sociologist, writes in her new book on teenagers and social networks, It is complicated, about a girl who uses her Android smartphone only for Twitter and Facebook. “It was possible to surf the web with your phone, but it was time consuming and frustrating,” Boyd writes. “If she really needed something, she would text her friends to see if anyone knew the answer or had access to a ‘real’ computer.”

Life changes when you first connect, even if it’s through services that provide slow, ad-infested, and limited internet. But as Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales told Wired this month, “Until we have faster broadband speeds and access around the world, we can only dream of the potential of the web. “

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