Networks are only as good as the applications they enable. Thus when we think about the networks we want, it’s helpful to think about the applications that are being developed, and their network requirements. This in turn encourages us to look at the network from the application providers’ perspective.
In general, an application doesn’t have an absolute need for a given bandwidth (or latency, or other requirements). On the one hand, developers may add ‘nice to have’ features as more bandwidth becomes available. The rise of video on webpages is an example – The Telegraph website was functional without it, but is more attractive with it, and the shift to broadband has enabled it.
On the other hand, developers may choose to invest their time in squeezing a given level of features into less bandwidth. There are several motives for this – it makes the service functional for users on poorer connections; it enhances the user experience, increasing usage; it reduces traffic charges for end users; and it reduces serving costs for the provider.
Thus there is a trade-off for the application developer (conscious or otherwise). For the larger internet companies, this is a trade-off made in a global context. For Facebook, for example, two-thirds of their active users are outside North America and Europe. Thus the network performance ‘envelope’ they are considering is not primarily that of the advanced networks of the OECD countries, but rather the lower performing networks of India, China, Africa, Latin America and so on. According to Akamai, the average speed in India is just 3.5 Mbps, compared to 14.9 Mbps in the UK, for example. Overall, more than half the world’s internet users are on speeds of 5 Mbps or less:
Moreover, Facebook usage (as for other companies) is increasingly on mobile networks. Of their users, 56% are mobile only, and 92% use mobile some of the time. This is particularly important in emerging markets. As Skyscanner put it, “some markets are already bordering on mobile-only, with consumer desktop usage and fixed-line connections almost unheard of”. Mobile customers are much more likely to have limited data allowances, and charges that may be challenging for those on lower incomes. Google has estimated that 1 hour of minimum wage work in India is enough to buy the data for just 15 webpage downloads.
Thus developers trying to address global markets have a massive incentive to make their features work within the limited constraints of mobile networks. Developers increasingly test their apps in simulated 3G or even 2G environments. To limit data and bandwidth requirements there has been substantially increased investment in research into video compression, for example. In 2001 there were 12 US patents filed in this area – in 2015 there were 216. Even text is being compressed, which can yield 70-80% reductions in file sizes.
What does this all mean for the UK? While these steps benefit users in challenging environments, they have implications for those on more advanced networks. The same advanced video codec that enables someone in Mumbai to watch an HD video over 3G may enable a Manchester consumer to watch 4K TV on an ADSL connection.
Thus the bandwidth requirements of known applications are likely to continue to fall, which should help ensure our networks are well able keep ahead of demand.
Further, the implication of the UK’s relatively strong bandwidth position in worldwide terms is that global application providers will have reasons to focus on apps with requirements well within the UK’s capabilities – any app designed for Chinese consumers is unlikely to trouble UK networks.
Conversely this also suggests there is little value to being ‘world beating’ in terms of bandwidth. Any developer creating apps to make use of your unique bandwidth is inherently limiting themselves to a tiny market, and hence such developers are less likely to appear.
In other words, by accident the UK may be in exactly the right position in the bandwidth race.
All blog posts can be found here over the course of the week – Connectivity Campaign Week blog posts.