5G is Making the Web Slower
Alright, I made you click. So hear me out…
5G is here. Its little icon is starting to appear in the top corners of phone screens throughout the US. If you’ve used it already, you may have observed that it doesn’t feel a whole lot faster than 4G, and I concur. Reportedly, these early days of 5G are hampered by transitioning infrastructure, but as it matures 5G is predicted to improve network speeds dramatically. Providers are predicting download speeds from 150-200Mbps on average, and I’ve even seen claims that we could theoretically soon see speeds of 5gigs per second. With speeds like that, you could download the entire discography of Friends AND ceremoniously drag and drop it in your trash bin in the time it would normally take to load a webpage today. The future is amazing!
Oh! And it’s not just bandwidth that’ll change. Latency will improve under 5G as well, and latency has been one of the web’s notorious performance bottlenecks for some time. That means that the time we spend connecting to a website in the first place could drop to essentially zero. Again, amazing!
Alright, so network performance stands to get way faster very soon. That should alleviate the web’s performance problems right?
Well, it should, but I don’t think it will. At least not soon. If recent trends continue, 5G will make web performance worse, not better, for the average person.
Worse? How could this be?
“Looks good on my phone”
Developer Convenience can easily lead us astray. The average device in the US is not the brand new iPhone with the notch at the top that many of us may have in our pockets. The average device even in the US costs about $130. It could be an iPhone, but it’s an older one. It’s most likely to be a mid-range Android, with a relatively underpowered processor. Here are the best-sellers on Amazon as of last friday:
Again, these are the phones we should be paying attention to. Even if they’re on a new fast network, they’re very likely choking on the code we’re sending, rendering the potential improvements of 5G moot.
And what about folks without 5G?
5G coverage requires big infrastructure changes, so it’s going to arrive in affluent, developed areas first. Rural and developing regions of the world are less likely to see it as soon. That means folks in non-5G regions not only experience the web on their relatively-underpowered devices, but they’re also downloading our increasing amounts of code over an older 3G or 4G network. Doubly bad.
What to do?
Most of all, get your managers, product owners, developers, and everyone else an average Android device and test your site on it. It’ll help all of your users.
We have a huge opportunity to improve the web as networks improve, but it’s on us to take it or leave it.