I'm Parker.

The Last Mile

Living without the Internet is a reality for the vast majority of people on the Earth. With Facebook and Google treating connection speeds and bandwidth like disposable cutlery, you can hardly guess why they’re having such a terrible time continuing to grow their userbase around the world. The problem is the infrastructure isn’t available. The “last mile,” as it is often referred to, is sub-par in most parts of the world.

Ask anyone who travels a lot about their Internet usage habits and they will regale you with stories of downloading all their work on terrible airport Wi-Fi, traveling halfway around the world, and have almost no quality access to the Internet. It really seems that public Wi-Fi, whether at an airport, a hotel, or a coffee shop, is universally slow and flaky.

For those who live in rural parts of the world, even in the most highly advanced nations, access to the Internet can be unreliable and painfully slow at the best of times. From the backcountry in Mississippi to the great plains of Africa, to the countryside in Austria, these rural areas all have great trouble accessing a reliable and fast Internet connection.

Connections needn’t be 100 megabits per second to be considered fast (if they were, my home connection in Oakland, California would be considered sloth-like). Imagine the average requirements for accessing the Web. First, the page must load. With sometimes dozens of external resources (photos, JavaScript, iframes, CSS, and other media), this can be a challenge. Second, the page must fully load in a reasonable amount of time. You might be willing to send off a request for a page and go fetch a coffee at 8, but by 10 you are most certainly not interested in waiting ninety or more seconds for a page to fully load. Finally, the connection must be stable throughout your session. If you navigate to a page and the connection vanishes or becomes otherwise too slow by the time you click on a hyperlink, then it is no good. The connection cannot falter.

I had the great fortune to spend a few days on a resort on the island of Lombok in Indonesia last year. Never before have I had such a terrible, teasing Internet connection. While I had no obligations to work, I did need to check the status of our flights back to the U.S. Alas, nothing at all would load over the Wi-Fi! We borrowed the computer at the front desk with a wired connection, but couldn’t get Singapore Airlines’ website to load fully. The initial HTML would load, but all the bells and whistles to improve the experience of folks on a much faster connection made it unusable for us – we couldn’t load the JavaScript and other assets necessary to navigate the website! With flights being canceled left and right due to a recent volcanic eruption, the updated information we required in order to plan for our travels was only accessible to folks who spoke Bahasa Indonesia. We were saved by the general manager who spoke English well enough to call and explain the situation to us.

Parts of the world have connectivity, but are two or three generations behind. For example, parts of developing countries in Africa have access only to 2G wireless connections. With patience and persistence, it might be possible to conduct very simple communications online. Beyond that, Internet companies are resorting to a text message (SMS) service which allows users to perform certain actions based on the content of messages. Imagine that! Controlling your Gmail through SMS is laughable to many of us, but it’s equivalent to normal experiences for the vast majority of the world.

Major telecom companies need not remind us of their impressive speeds. Their datacenters pump petabytes of data around the globe every hour. Some might find it miraculous, then, that one never experiences these impressive speeds. By the time you connect to the Wi-Fi at the hotel, airport, or coffee shop, you are seeing one tenth or less of the promised speeds.

The problem lies in the last mile. This oft-reviled part of the Internet which is most crucial to tap into the economic possibility therein. Imagine any Internet service which wishes to provide goods, a service, or both. Take Handy for example, an online provider which connects folks who need their houses cleaned with people with the skills to clean houses (I described it once as “an Uber for house cleaning,” but I am so disgusted by Uber’s corporate behaviour in recent years that I quickly rescinded my comparison with apologies to Handy). Connecting two people, one with a need and the other with the ability, requires a solid Internet connection on the part of both client and contractor. If a client cannot place an order or the contractor cannot receive these order details, then the business simply cannot run. The Internet connection available to each at their respective homes or on the go is crucial. If Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etcetera cannot translate the wonderful speeds of their datacenter into the real speeds folks see at home, then these business simply cannot exist.

Oakland is fairly urban. I live in an apartment building built, I believe, before the home Internet revolution. This is quite common around the world (the revolution is still quite young in relative terms and we haven’t had major catastrophic wars or natural disasters recently to require such mass rebuilding). Still, it is quite uncommon to have speeds exceeding 5 or 10 Mbps in the most advanced cities in the U.S. and many European countries. The connection from Comcast’s datacenter in our vicinity to our home is slow and cannot serve that much bandwidth. Peak times for Internet usage in my building (in the evening just after dinner) causes our connection to slow to a crawl.

To live in a city on the outskirts of Silicon Valley and to still have terrible connection speeds and bandwidth capacities should be unacceptable. If we experience that, the rest of the world is certainly experiencing much worse. In Oakland, I have the option of paying for faster speeds. In most of the world, that is a dream.

The people consuming the Internet services have connections with speeds and bandwidth capacities orders of magnitude smaller than those who are building Internet services. Speed is key. Bandwidth is key. Stability is key. Ultimately, these factors are most affected by the presence and quality of the Last Mile. When will we decide to invest in the Last Mile and bring proper Internet connections to the world?