In 1995, dial up internet access, at typical speeds of 33.6 kbps (kilo bits per second or 33,600 bps), was fast. Back then web pages were designed to be as “small” as possible. The rule was it should load in 4 seconds, 8 seconds max. Has anyone seen a web page load in 4 seconds on dial up in the last decade? Well, what happened?
Two things happened. Average user connection speed got faster and the types of content and technology to deliver and view that content became much more sophisticated.
That original 4 second rule had designers develop pages to around 15 KB (15 kilo bytes or 120 kilo bits) in size. This would load on a typical dial up connection in 4 seconds. The max was 30 KB back then. That was THE max for the entire page. Text, pictures, everything. Now days the situation is much different. A 2010 article by Web Site Optimization shows how web page size has grown exponentially since 1995 (original data replotted here):
What is interesting is when you compare this growth in page size with the average worldwide broadband speed plot from an earlier post:
You see that, even though the time scales differ, both web page size and broadband connection speeds are increasing in an exponential growth pattern. In this way today’s “hi speed” becomes tomorrows norm, or as I call it, the perpetual obsolescence of speed.
So, if web content sizes increase but broadband speeds increase, what does it matter? It matters for many rural users who are stuck with satellite or 3G connections because they are not serviced by cable or DSL. These services typically max out at 1.5 Mbps. Looking at those 2 graphs, 1.5 Mbps may be usable today, but in 2-5 years it will be obsolete.
Yes, 4G is replacing 3G and satellite providers do have some higher capacity plans. The reality is, though, that higher speed satellite is extremely expensive and 4G, whenever it actually becomes available to rural users, has real world maximum throughput in the 4 to 8 Mbps range. While exceptional for a mobile connection, this lands it square in the middle of the pack compared to cable and DSL. Don’t get me wrong, this is very solid performance today, but in 4 or 5 years we’ll be having this same discussion. 4G just can’t compete with cable that offers 25 to 60 Mbps plans. Put another way, 4G is great for wireless, but so/so compared to cable and DSL. And I haven’t even touched on the issue of satellite and wireless data caps, but I’ll leave that to a future post.