Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Web Really Sucks if You Have a Slow Connection

Dan Luu:

A couple years ago, I took a road trip from Wisconsin to Washington and mostly stayed in rural hotels on the way. I expected the internet in rural areas too sparse to have cable internet to be slow, but I was still surprised that a large fraction of the web was inaccessible. Some blogs with lightweight styling were readable, as were pages by academics who hadn’t updated the styling on their website since 1995. But very few commercial websites were usable (other than Google). When I measured my connection, I found that the bandwidth was roughly comparable to what I got with a 56k modem in the 90s. The latency and packetloss were significantly worse than the average day on dialup: latency varied between 500ms and 1000ms and packetloss varied between 1% and 10%. Those numbers are comparable to what I’d see on dialup on a bad day.

Despite my connection being only a bit worse than it was in the 90s, the vast majority of the web wouldn’t load. Why shouldn’t the web work with dialup or a dialup-like connection? It would be one thing if I tried to watch youtube and read pinterest. It’s hard to serve videos and images without bandwidth. But my online interests are quite boring from a media standpoint. Pretty much everything I consume online is plain text, even if it happens to be styled with images and fancy javascript. In fact, I recently tried using w3m (a terminal-based web browser that, by default, doesn’t support css, javascript, or even images) for a week and it turns out there are only two websites I regularly visit that don’t really work in w3m (twitter and zulip, both fundamentally text based sites, at least as I use them).

I’m embarrassed to say that this site, despite my best efforts, remains very slow on a simulated 56K dialup connection, averaging around thirty seconds for the homepage to load. That’s miles better than a typical news site, which would simply fail to load, but it’s nowhere near as good as some of the more stripped-down sites that Luu tested. Since this site has a stylesheet and a little bit of JavaScript, I’m not sure it will ever become that quick, but it’s worth aiming for. Why?

The flaw in the “page weight doesn’t matter because average speed is fast” is that if you average the connection of someone in my apartment building (which is wired for 1Gbps internet) and someone on 56k dialup, you get an average speed of 500 Mbps. That doesn’t mean the person on dialup is actually going to be able to load a 5MB website. The average speed of 3.9 Mbps comes from a 2014 Akamai report, but it’s just an average. If you look at Akamai’s 2016 report, you can find entire countries where more than 90% of IP addresses are slower than that!

Your site may not explicitly target visitors in those countries, but if we’re building websites for the World Wide Web, we ought to be more considerate of users everywhere.