5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe
5G is here. Its little icon is starting to appear in the top corners of phone screens throughout the world. If you’ve connected to 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. Carriers are predicting download speeds in 2019 for anywhere from 100Mb to 1 Gbit per second on average. At that speed, you could download the entire discography of Friends AND ceremoniously drag-and-drop it in your trash bin in around the same time it would normally take to load a webpage today. I mean, probably—I’m not a math person. The future is amazing!
Oh! And it’s not just bandwidth that’s improving. Latency will improve through 5G as well, and latency has been one of the web’s notorious performance bottlenecks for quite some time. That means that the observable time we spend connecting to a website in the first place could drop to essentially zero. Again, amazing!
So network performance stands to get much faster very soon. That should alleviate the web’s performance problems right?
Well, it should, but I don’t expect it will. At least not soon. If recent trends continue, 5G just might make web performance worse, not better, for the average person.
…after the party it’s the after party.
“Looks good on my phone”
Developer Convenience can easily lead us astray.
The average device is not the brand new thousand-dollar iPhone with 3 lenses for taking photographs. The average device even in the US is the sort of device that you see on the Amazon Best Sellers, which can run about $130. It might be an iPhone, but it’s probably 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 right now, where at the time of writing, the third best seller costs $59.
Even if folks are on a new fast network, they’re very likely choking on the code we’re sending, rendering the potential speed improvements of 5G moot.
And what about folks without 5G?
5G coverage requires big infrastructure changes, and it’s likely to arrive in affluent, developed areas first. Rural and developing regions of the world are less likely to see 5G as soon. That means folks in non-5G regions will not only experience the web on their often-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, we need to get our managers, product owners, developers, and everyone else an average Android device and test our sites on it regularly. Better yet, get that device tethered to a prepaid or metered data plan and see how long it takes to run out of data in a 5G world. Keeping our teams aware of our real-world performance will help all users–the folks with nice devices too!
As networks improve, we have a huge opportunity to improve the web we build, but it’s on us to take that opportunity, or squander it.