The Incredible Unevenness of Internet Connectivity

I’m at the The Athenaeum at Caltech which is the alumni club / hotel on Caltech’s campus. I’m on Caltech Guest WiFi and am getting speeds of between 2 and 10 Kbps (e.g. miserably slow). My Verizon phone has one bar and is flickering between 3G and LTE, but is mostly 3G.

I have no expectation that I get a certain level of infrastructure and connectivity in my life, so this isn’t a rant about that. In fact, I’m amazed on a regular basis that any of this shit actually works. Rather, I’m intrigued by the disparity between the top and bottom speed of connectivity I experience on a daily basis with my laptop and  my iPhone.

Last week in Kansas City I experience the 1gig internet speed that is provided by Google Fiber. I was in a house next door to mine – my Google Fiber was being installed yesterday.

Google Fiber is Fast

The gap isn’t a little – it’s orders of magnitude. And it’s fascinating to think about the impact of this unevenness. In my house slightly outside of Boulder we have an old T1 line that gets 1Mbps to it via a CenturyLink connection – this is the fastest connectivity I can get where I live. In my condo in Boulder, we are on 50Mbps Comcast connection (although I rarely see more than 20Mbps). I get no cell service at my house outside of Boulder; I get strong cell service and LTE in my condo in town.

I realize that the typical speed I first got when using a computer was 2400 baud (actually – my first modem was 110 baud) – that was only 35 years ago. It’s remarkable the difference between 110 baud and 811.02 Mbps over 35 years, but it’s even more dramatic that within a week I’ve used the same devices and applications at 1Mbps, 20Mbps, 800Mbps, and then get stuck in a place where you are happy when things spike to 20 Kbps.

Richard Florida talks about the power of the world being spiky. It’s interesting to ponder in the context of Internet connectivity.

  • You’re kind to use the word “interesting” about the this lack of service in so many places. How about insane, idiotic or just plain ridiculous? Is it fair to imagine these speeds as speeds on actual highways, and how impossible it would be if you were forced to drive 10 miles on perfect pavement at 85 mph, then suddenly you’re on a dirt road going 15 mph for the next 10 miles, then you’re on gravel for the next 10 miles, proceed at your own risk, etc? How is anyone supposed to do business this way?

    • DaveJ

      Big words for someone who – based on her LinkedIn profile – has never built a single jot of technology. How about appreciating the fact that the *typical* bandwidth available has gone up by two orders of magnitude in 10 years, both in wired/home situations and in mobile devices?

    • Yeah – I think that all the time.

    • Ryan Scott

      well, you do this already. local roads vs highways. we can’t have highways driving to every doorstep.

      still i agree, it sucks. but i don’t expect it to change real quick.

  • Two thoughts come to mind: 1) I am constantly amazed, too, at the disparity. I can get five bars in one section of my house and lose connectivity in another, less than 200 feet apart. 2) When designing apps, I still insist on an online/offline structure. Not having connectivity is bad. Not having access to mission critical apps even without connectivity is worse.

    • Very smart to assume online / offline. Now – if the iPhone email client only worked that way.

  • I got my Cable bill yesterday and wanted to look at alternatives – we hardly ever watch regular TV anymore and yet we’re paying $80+/mo. We also have Internet and VOIP with our Cable provider.

    Bottom line – I have NO options. Unless I want to unplug completely and get a Roku or Boxee – and my wife still wants our local stations, and I’d like to keep ESPN. FIOS isn’t available in my neighborhood (suburban NJ, only 45 minutes from NYC), and there are no faster Internet options.

    And don’t even get me started regarding cell service – which works until it doesn’t. This infrastructure stuff is hard, and most companies won’t invest without help or a guaranteed return. We need to change that – there’s no reason we can’t have open and fast broadband and airwaves.

  • wow…. I think people forgot to read this sentence: “I have no expectation that I get a certain level of infrastructure and connectivity in my life, so this isn’t a rant about that.”

    Everyone used to say that WiMax was the answer. It’s pretty clear to me that the next big thing in connectivity will be a new type of wireless infrastructure, but probably something more powerful than WiMax. Globally there is so much more demand for a wireless solution because it comes at a lower cost and quicker implementation cycle. Plus, the global market is larger. Could it be that the regulation of wireless spectrum is holding back the industry from innovating for more developed countries/markets?

  • I’m surprised it works at all in many places. Or that it all doesn’t randomly burst into flames everyday. To me, from 50 ft. off the ground pole cabling in big metro areas (Chicago, LA) looks like one big knotty mess of power strips, adapters and extension cords dragged across backyards and rooftops.

  • Sadly a lot of the LA area is a connectivity wasteland. From Deadspots in homes to just generally crappy coverage. I’m finding Seattle far better in that area, although my Verizon phone did have a lot of trouble downtown (could have been a phone issue though)

    In LA, it seems to be “normal” to get a cruddy connection even in the most populous and built-up areas for whatever reason.

  • I am also obsessed with checking speeds. I was in CO recently and my LTE service was pretty good. I thought it was going to be much worse with the varying landscape (mountains), but it was much better than I expected. How does someone so techie deal with 1mbps… dialup speed? I guess living in the beauty that is CO brings a different mindset. If this is the fastest speed while at home you must be thrilled when you are getting 10mbps.

  • There are large swaths of this country (rural areas) where there are no broadband options at all. Where you’re lucky to get a 28.8 bps dial up connection. People living there are at a serious disadvantage business wise.

  • I had the same thought when using the Internet in the business sophiscated Dubai ( without the tech speed know) if that was the best imagine the worst ? And what progress is being retarded and by how much time.

  • Wow 110 baud acoustic coupler modems. That brings back memories! Great seeing you today and last night for dinner Brad. I’m glad you were able to make it to Pasadena; thanks for taking the time.

    • Thx for hosting me!

  • Yup…And the worst part of this is what’s advertised and what’s really delivered is not the same (like your example of 50 vs. 20), and the providers play games in justifying that, like “Oh that’s peak performance, not average performance”, or “when we sense you’re downloading a movie, we’ll slow you down to evenly distribute bandwidth”, etc…

  • Dan G

    Haha, this shit really is amazing!

  • This makes me think of a technology that I’ve been fascinated with for over ten years when I first read about it: Mesh Networking. I remember reading back then that Nokia was already selling equipment to create this kind of networks and I naturally imagined that carriers would become part of history within a couple of years. All of that disappeared and I can’t understand why. If so much of their business models depend on people having fast internet access, why don’t companies like Apple, Google, Netflix, Spotify, etc, join together to develop this.

  • Brad — terrific to have you come visit us in Pasadena and thanks for tolerating the “quaintness” of the Athenaeum at Caltech. For better or worse the building and its historic infrastructure hasn’t changed much in the 80+ years since it has been built!

    • It was quaint – in a wonderful way.

  • what’s noteworthy is that the bandwidth is but a single element that governs the end-user experience, there are so many other critical dependencies that have to align and work for nearly any digital experience to take place that it is remarkable that it ever works!

  • “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – this plays out in strange, fractal sort of way when it comes to connectivity. I have 20MBs from comcast in my apartment, but 20ft away in my parking lot, the cell/wifi signal is so weak I can’t look up an address on google maps while sitting safely in my not yet moving car.

    My girlfriend’s family has a house in the mountains near Yosemite. For a long time there was no cell signal there, and this was a feature, not a bug. Now they have full bars, and I miss the forced disconnect I used to get when we spent a few days there.