Laws of the Web – Bandwidth

By Matt Cornock

I’ve borrowed a book from the University Library. Published in 2001, Bernado A. Huberman’s ‘The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information’, offers a window back a decade to when the internet boom started and mass-access in the developed world became a reality. I’m probably the only person to borrow this book in quite some time, but thought it would be a great way to see if commentary on the internet in ‘olden times’ still holds merit to today’s use of the technology – in particular here the context of content creation for students.

The bandwidth issue of old

In his chapter ‘Social Dilemmas and Internet Congestion’, Huberman starts with the metaphor of the ‘Unscrupulous Diners Dilemma’ (citing Glance and Huberman, 1994). This (in summary) is where in a group meal situation, someone could order the most expensive meal in the knowledge that the shared bill shared will lower the actual cost to them at the disadvantage of the others’ purses: someone gains at others’ expense. Typically then, everyone selects a low priced meal to not appear ‘taking advantage’ of the group pay situation, else everyone commits to a spending splurge (resources not limited). Huberman relates this to bandwidth on the web, where large file-sharing often resulted in the slowing down of high contention ratio, cheap dial-up service providers. Resources are limited, therefore the mass-downloads-for-all isn’t possible. With the anonymity of the web and the flat-rate charging of internet (as opposed to pennies per kilobyte), it is not monetary cost that is the gain, but fast access to the internet.

We might argue that such a consideration is irrelevant now in the broadband era. We no longer have to wait for more than 10 seconds for web pages to load. Music, TV and films are now streamed live and downloaded in a few minutes rather than overnight. However, whilst the impression of fast and immediate access is given by the big service providers, as education providers at University and school, we should still be aware of too much dependence on high-bandwidth resources.

There are two main points of discussion: shared access and improved guidance.

Shared access to the internet

University campuses may have 10 gigabit connections to dedicated academic networks, and students living on campus hence have access to this vast data pipe. However, the majority of students remain off campus, in shared student housing with whatever line speed can be achieved miles from the nearest exchange. In effect, the same problem that Huberman referred to does still exist. One student attempting to stream a high definition movie undoubtedly disadvantages their housemates.

When providing course materials, we may be tempted to say that we expect broadband access or expect that because students have access to campus, therefore they have access to high-speed internet. Indeed, this ‘get out clause’ allows us to be very lazy with the creation of multimedia resources in particular. As content creators we should still consider that students will want to access resources in the location and with the devices that they prefer – including mobile which has its own bandwidth and user interface limitations aside. We cannot then ignore the reality of shared broadband access and must enable our material to be accessed at low cost and low effort.

Guidance on online resources

Following on from this, in providing content to students we run the risk of being lazy (again) with our naming and guidance. A string of files called ‘lecture 1.pptx’, ‘lecture 2.pptx’, etc. do not help students find what they are looking for quickly. Without a context, the file is meaningless. The net result is that they must download each resource, skim for the piece of information they are looking for, then discard the rest. This is very much a waste-happy process when it comes to bandwidth, and also users’ time. As such, clear file names and with lectures, an indication of the content (e.g. three or four key slides’ titles) make the process of accessing the information much more user-friendly, economical and more satisfactory. 

The same could be said of some video material. For example, expecting a student to download a 4GB feature film movie in order to watch a 15 minute extract is uneconomical and has a high expectation about the device and connection available to the student. Providing the extract alone would get over this issue, and if you wanted to provide the full film for context that should be a separate, optional download. [Obvious assumptions here about copyright clearance by the way!]

Conclusion and considerations for content development

In conclusion, I still believe that the bandwidth issue is prevalent. Although I am not advocating a complete obliteration of any bandwidth-hungry resource, I do believe that we should not assume that there is ubiquitous access to ‘good’ internet connections. By all means, use multimedia where appropriate, but consider: how much you expect a student to download, whether that could be considered ‘reasonable’ in a shared environment, whether the student would be disadvantaged if the only place they could access the material is on-campus in a location not preferable to their study, is there an alternative, low-bandwidth resource that could be used to supplement it? 

With these considerations, you show an awareness of the limitations students may have accessing the internet and have provided material in an economical way. If you are a content creator, start to familiarise yourself with the technical side of content. For a start, check out the following: what file sizes mean in terms of download time and disk-space usage (i.e. the difference between  a 1MB file, a 10MB file, 100MB file and 1GB file); the impact of large images embedded in PowerPoint files (could you link out to them rather than embed?); best compression mechanisms for video and audio (.mp4 is a common format for video compression, far better for internet than the typically un/low-compressed .avi).

References

Huberman, B. A. (2001) The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the ecology of information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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