Thursday, 21 June 2012

Is superfast broadband always a good thing?

As superfast broadband gets adopted by more and more people, we must not shut out those people who cannot have this.

Are you listening to me, Network Rail? Look how quickly this image downloads on my site.

One of the perks of being a software tester is that you can take your work home with you and tell managers of other public-facing software (especially websites) what they're doing wrong. I've recently been arguing with Network Rail over the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station. No complaints about the redevelopment itself (anyone who's actually used this station will be able to tell you why); my problem is pages like this one. Can you spot what's wrong with it? Possibly not, if you've got a fast internet link. But if you're on a slow internet connection, it takes ages to download the pictures and chews up your bandwidth – about 5MB for three images. And to illustrate just how unnecessary this is, here is the full picture you have to download in order to view a small (304px × 172px) image.1

This is an example of lazy programming that suits the majority but excludes the minority. This is nothing new – it is been going on ever since the internet began. In the 90s there was Netscape Mail's HTML-only e-mails (absolutely and totally utterly vital so that you can write in multi-coloured Comic Sans font), instantly rendering them unreadable to people on text-based programs such as pine. Then came Internet Explorer's dominance and the web pages that didn't work in any other browsers, or worse, did work in other browsers but blocked them anyway because “it's designed for IE”. Meanwhile, we were plagued with Flash-only websites, removing perfectly decent text content away from many users with sight disabilities. What all these have in common in that all of this was completely unnecessary – it wouldn't have required any more work to make websites accessible to everyone, just a little bit of thought.

But whilst problems so far have affected individuals, the disparity in broadband speeds threatens to affect whole communities. It's not the fault of anyone in particular that internet speeds in many rural areas are so slow – sadly, the costs of laying hundreds of miles of cables versus the income gained from a handful of users in remote areas makes this an expensive problem to solve – but the government’s idea of digital infrastructure, to all-round applause, is to give cities that already have decent broadband speeds even faster speeds. My worry is that instead of making the internet faster, it will simply encourage websites to get more bloated and inefficient – still available to 90% of the UK, but increasingly inaccessible for the other 10% who face being treated like they don't matter.

And, unfortunately, there seems to be little appetite to stop a bloated internet. When a business suffers for having a below-average internet speed, it's usually considered the business's fault for not having a faster line even if that's impractical. In my last job, people routinely e-mailed ludicrously large attachments to each other eating up all the disk space, and yet this was never questioned – instead, staff were blamed for not clearing out their inboxes often enough. As the resolution of digital cameras increases, so has the bandwidth needed to download a few photos a friends e-mailed to you. A photo that only needs to be viewed on a screen as opposed to printed can be scaled down 90%, but the process for doing this is so complicated and laborious most people don't bother. Outlook and Thunderbird could easily add a feature that offers to scale down images for you, but they haven't, and show no signs of doing so.

However, there are some signs of hope. Video-streaming sites such as Youtube generally keep their streaming bandwidth down to something sane. I suspect this is more down to Youtube wanting to control their own bandwidth costs than anyone else's, but the effect is the same. Libreoffice Impress has a pretty nifty device to reduce the size of presentation files, which I'm sure anyone who's been e-mailed a 45MB .ppt file will welcome. (Sadly no equivalent functions in PowerPoint yet – hurry up Microsoft.) ITV player seems to be smart enough to switch between low-quality and high-quality streaming video depending on your internet speed. If more people can adopt good the good practice used here, maybe we can all live in perfect harmony.

[1] And unfortunately, the response I got from Network Rail wasn't encouraging. Their justification is that some people want high-resolution images available, but anyone who creates websites can tell you this is not the way to do it – you should put a thumbnail image on the page and provide a link to the larger-scale image. Worse, Network Rail actually does this on different pages in the same site, so why they think they can't do it on other pages is beyond me. I suppose it's unfair for me to be so scathing about a random customer services representative who, in all probability, doesn't normally deal with technical queries, but this is what happens when you don't provide a contact for technical queries. But that's a subject for another post.

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