(just looking for optimizations? skip to the good stuff)
As we’ve traveled the world, especially in South America, we’ve had many adventures in internet connectivity. Snagging WiFi from cafés, hostels, or Airbnbs to keep our friends and family up to date, or research vital information on the next part of our adventure. It was a big adjustment to life on the road. In our apartment in San Francisco we had blazing fast fiber internet. There were no limits on internet connectivity in our house — it’s greased lightning over there. On a bad day it was 100 megabytes per second in both directions.
In the rest of the world though it’s as if every byte was tied to a turtle.
In order to deal with the slow connection we have on our phones or wifi or expensive local data, I have spent a lot of time bashing together a system of optimizations and tools. Maybe it can be useful for you too!
Most of these tools I use are free, some cost a little money, and some require some technical knowledge — feel free to pick and choose. They can’t hurt, they can only help. And if you have one of those plans where you pay per MB or GB, you can save a lot of money.
Ryan and I both have international phone plans, with different limitations. I have service and data all over the world, but capped at 256kbps (0.256% of the speed I’d generally get at home on the WiFi), Ryan also has global data at LTE speeds (when available), but he pays per gigabyte. With 256kpbs I can slowly check Instagram, slowly, but reliably, load Facebook, and check email. I can even tether to my computer if I’m beyond the capabilities of my phone.
But, when we find internet out here in South America a good connection is ~1.2 Mbps. Finding one with 3 Mpbs is like finding an extra $10 in your pocket. 10Mbps means we’ve won the World Cup and beers are on us tonight.
So on a daily basis we’re tethering to our phones, using slow and intermittent WiFi that tends to drop out every few minutes, and cursing all of the web and app designers in San Francisco, New York, and Berlin who think that since you have a retina screen you absolutely want a retina-screen appropriate image (read: HUGE), and you want 20 of them because they’re so beautiful.
State of the web
But internet connectivity around the world is not the same. Bolivia (where we currently are) has an average connection speed of 2.7Mbps according to the 2017 Akamai State of the Internet. The United States is 10th on the list with 18.4Mbps, and top average speed go to South Korea with 28.6 Mbps.
If you ever seen the HBO show Silicon Valley and wondered “what’s the big deal with this Pied Piper compression algorithm? Why is this the premise of the entire show?” The answer is, in part, low bandwidth accessibility. If you can make all the images, videos, audio, cat GIFs, and 100k word blog posts significantly smaller without losing any quality, everything is better: storage costs are lower, the cost of sending content to users is cheaper, the cost of getting content from users is cheaper. It also opens up the massive and yet untapped “I only ever use the internet on a phone in rural India” market. It’s the holy grail of the internet. Which is why Facebook and Google are working on solar-powered autonomous drones and balloons that beam down advertisements to rural populations to continue their mission of “connecting the world”.
But for now, the first world creates the internet with the first world in mind (with the exception of Australia they’ll have slow internet forever). But you still want to read your gmail, browse Facebook, read travel blogs, upload your photos to Instagram, and get work done with an internet connection worse than a fleet of turtles carrying morse code in little tubes on their legs.
Check your speed
We use Speedtest to check how fast the connection is. Speedtest can be used at Speedtest.net and there are apps for desktop, mobile, and command line if you’re so inclined.
Optimize your mobile device
Turn off unnecessary updates and content refreshing
On iOS, turn off Background App Refresh. Lots of apps we use nowadays send little messages back to their servers and generally they’re not big, but sometimes they can be often, and 99% of them are totally unnecessary and they add up. Turn off all background updates and push notifications except for the ones that matter to you like Gmail or Signal or WhatsApp (it’s how they know when someone has sent you a message when you haven’t opened the app in a while). You can do the same on Android by turning on the Data Saver feature.
Turn off automatic app updates over a cellular connection. You don’t need every single little bug fix Air Canada puts out immediately – update the important ones when you have WiFi.
Opt into reduced quality
Find all the apps you use often, go into their settings and see if they have a Reduce data usage or Use Less Data option, or see if you can turn off Autoplay videos. You’ll probably get lower quality images and other content, but your choice is between NOT seeing the 100th photo of your friends’ new baby, and seeing it a little pixelated. You chose. Examples of apps that have this feature are Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Download offline content
Maps and navigation: For navigation and maps use Maps.Me — amazing offline maps based on Open Street Map. It even has offline navigation. Or download offline maps in the Google Maps app – this is more work than Maps.Me but may have different coverage. Sorry Apple maps, but you don’t have an offline option yet.
Media: I rarely watch Netflix on my computer anymore because we never have decent internet speeds, but when we have WiFi we can slowly download shows and movies on our phones using the Netflix app (friends on Windows also tell us there is a Netflix app for desktop). We also listen almost exclusively to downloaded content on Spotify (music and podcasts), and we also use a service called Audm that allows us to download long reads from magazines like the New Yorker narrated like an audio book for listening to when we’re driving into the middle of nowhere. We also have an Audible subscription that gives us one audiobook per month, perfect for those long drives.
Optimize your Computer
This is the big money here — our smart phones and apps are generally are built with the intention of working on slower speeds, although it may not seem like it, but the modern internet when accessed from a laptop or desktop computer is generally not intended to work slowly.
Turn off sneaky network usage
See what’s grinding through your network bandwidth:
- OSX - open Activity Monitor and click the ‘Network’ tab (free), or use iStat Menus or Little Snitch (paid)
- Windows - follow these instructions
iftopor whatever, you probably have a favorite
You’ll get a list of heavy network hitters in and out. You got a sneaky bit of software you don’t use very often but seems to be aggressively uploading? (cough Dropbox cough) Kill that thing and uninstall it. Generally you’ll see your internet browser and backup services like Dropbox being the big users, but then you’ll realize that you’re automatically downloading all the new software updates in the App Store! No wonder everything is slower than you think it should be. Turn that off.
Or, use an application like Tripmode to monitor and restrict internet access to certain applications on your computer when connected to certain networks (like your phone) and set a data cap that will shut off the internet when you’ve used a certain amount. Tripmode is a paid app ($7.99), but using it will save you some quick money when you pay per MB.
Turn off automatic updates — when the tubes are small and constantly plugged, you don’t have the luxury of letting your machines handle updates for you. You need to chose the time and place when you have a good connection to download large updates.
Put your browser on a data diet
First and foremost, make sure you are using a modern browser – if you are using Internet Explorer (especially an ancient version) please install Chrome or Firefox or even Opera right now and make it your default browser. Please. 🙏
Get an ad blocker – a favorite is Adblock Plus. The fewer ‘clothing for cats’ advertisements you are downloading, the better.
Get a privacy extension like Ghostery (you should have this anyways) to keep companies like Facebook and Google and DoubleClick from tracking you all over the internet. Even though they say their trackers are lightweight and friendly, you just don’t need them and they add up.
Use an image compression extension like Bandwidth Hero. This extension for Chrome and Firefox is a miracle — it sends all images through a little server I host on Heroku and compresses them to the setting I desire. Right now I’m on really really low bandwidth so I have it set to Extreme Compression (JPG 20). It makes all the images grainy and pixelated, and if I want black and white, but at least I can see them and read the text in the news article I’ve loaded.
Google also has a compression plug-in called Data Saver. However, it’s not a great option because it doesn’t compress websites loaded over HTTPS (which would include Facebook, etc). Bandwidth Hero will compress images loaded over HTTPS, and do so safely, because it sends all data through a server you control, but Data Saver doesn’t require any extra configuration or tech savvy.
Setting up Bandwidth Hero
Setting up your own proxy server for Bandwidth Hero is simple. Once you’ve installed the plugin go to Compression Settings → Configure data compression service → Installation Guide → Heroku → Deploy to Heroku
Once you’ve clicked on the Deploy to Heroku button you will be prompted to create a free Heroku account. It will walk you through creating the server from the provided Bandwidth Hero template and provide you with the URL you need to configure the compression service in the Bandwidth Hero plugin. Don’t be intimidated! It’s very easy.
with ❤️ from your two favorite nerds,
Bonus section: security
Making these changes to the way you and your devices use the internet has the bonus of speeding up your connection through a VPN. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a great way to secure your traffic on an unsecure network (e.g. open WiFi), or allow you to access blocked or restricted content by routing your traffic through another country (e.g. China -> US).
The problem with VPNs is that they can be very slow as they reroute all your traffic through another country or server. Fun fact – internet is very location dependent – if you are in the US accessing a website in the US, part of why it is fast is because the server with that data is nearby – if you are accessing the same site from Asia it will be slower because the data has to travel a longer distance. Big websites like Netflix (or even this blog) use a CDN (Content Delivery Network) that spreads the website out on many servers worldwide for fast access, but your closest server may still be a few countries away. This is where the ‘internet is a series of tubes’ (actually fiberoptic cables underneath the ocean) metaphor holds very true. So when you cut down on data used in general it will make using a VPN a faster and more pleasant experience.
If this blog post has piqued your interest on other ways you can be a more active and informed internet consumer, check out these resources on internet security:
- Surveillence Self Defense Guide by the EFF
- Internet Privacy Guide — Keeping Your Data Safe Online
- Do Not Track - a documentary series
Note: in no way have we been contacted or sponsored by any of the tools or tech listed – we’re just real big fans. Also, we know this is not an exhaustive list, this is just what we’ve found and used and been happy with within our relatively limited experience (OSX and Linux users, primarily on Chrome, with an iPhone and a Google phone) – we’d love to hear what you use to get around slow or expensive internet! Please comment below.