The edge of the internet?

I feel like I’ve noticed the limitations of the internet’s infrastructure more often in the last few weeks than ever before.

The first time I was doing something I often do which is using my phone as a kind of radio around the house, streaming programmes or talks I’ve missed over my home wifi connection and playing them through the loudspeaker. In this case it was a video of Paul Graham’s PyCon keynote (although I was only actually listening to the audio). As often happens, I realised I was late to meet friends so picked up the phone, stuck some headphones in and walked down the road for 10 minutes, still listening to the talk. Just before I got there though, the audio cut out and I got a text message from O2 saying I’d exceeded my data limit for the month. I didn’t actually know I had a limit.

The second time I felt the internet creaking was checking the speed of my home internet connection which is starting to become far less reliable. In this case I think it’s because of the aggregate effect of increasing demand on my local exchange. I should have kept the data over time but based on a few spot checks it seems that it’s about a third of the speed that it was two years ago.

The third thing that’s becoming really frustrating is the glitchiness of wifi networks on the move. I wonder whether this has always been the case but now I just expect it to work better. It often takes forever to connect and cuts out every few seconds as it tries to migrate you across different base stations — especially in large buildings like hotels. Don’t get me started on how much some places are charging for wifi — I basically refuse to pay.

I know I’m a pretty heavy user but the point is that if I’m bumping up against the edge of the internet now, it won’t take long for the whole system to reach its limits. I’ve always thought of the UK’s communications infrastructure as quite good but for the first time I can see how it might not be enough.

It also wouldn’t surprise me if there’s room for a new player offering something much better because everything I’ve read about (such as ‘super fast’) is really just a bit more capacity. It feels like the demands we’re beginning to place on the infrastructure are a couple of orders of magnitude greater than we currently have.

I’m a bit bored of watching the little rotating dots on iplayer. If the UK is going to be one of the best places in the world to create new applications of the internet we’re going to need to up our game.


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