Beer and cell phone

Take Your Network On A Trip Back In Time

Beer and cell phoneHow well do your web apps and websites work over slow or laggy connections? Are your WAN and web optimizers doing their job?

I have just had an eye-opening reminder of just how awkward some websites can be to anyone not on a fast broadband connection. It is not that they are badly made, as such, but it is careless — or at least thoughtless — design, especially as so many people switch to smartphones as their main route online.

The only connection I currently have is a nominal 64kbit/s of cellular data, and in reality it seems closer to 50kbit/s. You might think this wouldn’t be too bad for someone who cut his online teeth on V32 at 9.6kbit/s, and then ‘graduated’ to GSM data at 14.4kbit/s (if I was lucky), and indeed, for some things it is OK.  But quite a bit of online material is so lazily built now, with the expectation that users will be on multi-megabit broadband, that it is painful to use at 50k.

In particular, many mobile apps are not stateful and don’t cache, so every time you follow a link and then go back, you have to download the same content all over again. Meanwhile, most modern websites are graphics-heavy, and some are not even navigable without the images.

It would not be so bad if I could get on Wi-Fi. I am travelling in rural Bavaria, though, and in Germany there is very little free public Wi-Fi. In fact, the town I am staying in appears to have none at all. This is an unfortunate side-effect of German laws that make hotspot owners potentially liable for misuse of their connections, and it has of course boosted the sales of 3G data and paid Wi-Fi subscriptions.

The next problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any pay Wi-Fi around either — and when I resorted to using my local SIM card and phone as a wireless hotspot, I quickly ran through my monthly bandwidth allowance.

The one saving grace is that the German cell networks don’t cut you off or start charging per MB once you go over that limit. What they do instead is throttle your connection to a nominal 64k.

So here I am, surfing the web and trying to use mobile apps on a connection whose speed would have been sheer luxury 20 years ago. Now though, it is simply a frustration. Apps and websites might time out, and some pages take so long to download that I may as well go and make a cup of tea.

This is all the speed some people can get, though — out in the countryside you are sometimes lucky to get 56k GPRS or EDGE, never mind 3G or LTE. It’s a salutary reminder that when we build apps, we still need to test them on startlingly poor connections.

Still, as I said, I’m in southern Germany, and when I complained to a friend about the lack of public Wi-Fi, he wisely observed that: “Good beer will get you through times of no Wi-Fi better than Wi-Fi will get you through times of no beer.” I’ll drink to that.

Image credit: Brian Bilek (flickr)

About the author
Bryan Betts