Mobile Broadband: lessons from the slow lane of the internet

Ross Hall

May 24, 2021
(Updated on June 28, 2021)

Photograph of a tortoise crawling across grass

Mobile broadband seemed like a good idea at the time. We were moving away, so a long-term contract wasn’t viable. A rolling monthly contract would give us freedom to end it when we needed to. With promises of 10Mbps downloads and unlimited access to Netflix, it seemed like a perfect way to get the “high speeds” needed in the digital age and stay flexible.

If only it had worked out that way.

After years of enjoying the high speed fibre someone working in digital has come to rely on, the move was something of a shock. What we experienced were speeds close to dial-up, endless problems with critical websites and we couldn’t watch Netflix.

It also gave me first-hand experience of how the slow lane of the Internet is experienced by households and businesses across the country. An experience our obsession with “latest design” is undoubtably amplifying.

Everything is slow on mobile broadband.

It isn’t just that web pages take a long time to download, or large images seem to spend an eternity coming down the pipe. It’s that everything happens on an almost glacial timescale.

Having come from a fast loading environment, the natural reaction to a slow loading page was to open another browser window and load something else. Far from helping, this slowed everything down even more. Although an obvious observation, it’s one easily forgotten when sites load almost instantly. Needless to say, I quickly cured myself of this habit and ended up loading one page at a time.

Switching off images and other media sped things up considerably. Much of my research became text based, trawling the web looking at pages of words devoid of carefully selected stock images and photos of smiling employees. Whilst not a bad thing, it did mean one site quickly merged with another. It seems our modern idiom relies too much on imagery to reinforce branding.

Web Apps are in a league of their own

From internet banking to social media management, web apps are everywhere. Slow speeds meant there were times when resources didn’t load properly. I was left looking at a blank screen wondering why nothing was happening. More than once I filled in a form, hit submit and found myself staring at a raw database error message.

It isn’t only web apps that have this problem. Headless content management systems and a desire to create self-contained “components” also create similar problems. I’d often be reading a page only for everything to “jump” as the designer’s creation popped into being. Turning off JavaScript rendered some sites unusable as they seemed to be relying on detecting cookies before they’d render content.

Designing for a slower world.

Designers have been lulled into a false sense of capability by their own high-speed connections. There are tens of thousands of UK properties that can’t access decent broadband speeds. Many small, rural businesses are being left behind not just by the infrastructure, but also by designers and developers overloading their sites.

Creating an accessible site is a good starting point. Having something that functions and presents itself “on brand” without the benefit of images, videos and JavaScript components should be a basic requirement of any digital business. My experience showed a site that took accessibility seriously was usable at low speeds.

Perhaps the better way of improving the experience for users on the slow lane of the web is to throttle broadband to designers and developers alike. Instead of allowing them free reign over high speed connections, force them to experience their creations at the snail’s pace a large proportion of the UK population seems to.

Maybe then the slow lane internet will become more tolerable, and the high speed one more usable.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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