Musings on Mobility: The Ping from Hell
Like many of us, I try to be conscious of my ecological footprint. As part of this, I try to take the train whenever possible, instead of flying. The European train network being kind of awesome and massive, I actually enjoy the smoothness of the ride when travelling for leisure. During the pandemic, when air travel seemed like a really bad idea for a variety of reasons, I also wanted to see how well I could use this system for business travel. As an academic, ‘business’ just means that I may be reading papers, correcting papers, generally thinking about stuff, or, at times, chat with colleagues.
All these actions should not require a very powerful internet connection, you would think…
This post details some of my experiences when taking German trains and travelling around the southern parts of Germany (Baden–Württemberg and Bavaria). I want to focus specifically on the ping times, indicating the general responsiveness of my internet connection. This is of course a highly sophisticated scientific experiment, showing data that are totally not cherry picked! Whenever available in the ICE, Germany’s fastest and most luxurious train, I used the onboard WiFi, simulating—nay, living—the experience a simple traveller would have. Mobile connections still costing an arm and a leg in Germany, I only used my hotspot as a last resort.
Here are some of my favourite trips, being graphed and slightly annotated. Let’s start with the first trip. I always added a red line indicating whenever the ping time is lower than 500ms. This is my personal breaking point, beyond which the internet feels like I am trying to escape from prison with a spoon. Your mileage may vary, though, and some people are known to already perceive ping times of 100ms as disastrous—just ask any professional gamer. Anyway, here we see the trip in all its glory:
The helpful arrow tells you at which point we crossed the border to another county. This is a clear shift in the dynamical system, and also, dare I say it, a clear win for the usability. Overall, the internet felt quite sluggish on that trip, but things cleared up about halfway through. Here’s a highly scientific repetition of that experiment, albeit with a slight delay in logging since the principal investigator of the experiment somehow, ahem, forgot to turn it on. All in all, a similar pattern; crossing into another county helps:
The track was slightly different though, as you can see by the fact that there are fewer peaks during which ping times grow until they may take longer than the age of the universe. Now, for my third trip, I visited my parents who are living in what you might want to call a rural area. Socially, the trip was very nice, and we had a great time. In terms of connectivity, it was a disaster:
Ping times made the internet essentially unusable for most of the trip; everything slowed down to a trickle—this is what it must feels like to fall into a black hole. As Sartre famously said: ‘Hell is other people or having a slow internet connection.’
I am not sure what lessons to draw from this. As a generally impatient person that wants fast download speeds, I tend to see the time spent in the train as ‘digital detox,’ or a temporary banishment into one of the circles of hell. Both are fine with me—just like Dante’s epic ends with paradise, so, too, will my trip end and bring me redemption, or at least deliver me to a destination with a better internet connection.
A Faster Net? However, on the operating end of things, these experiences illustrate that the internet has become too bloated for its own good. Essentially, at slow speeds, most—if not all—websites are fully unusable. Content shift destroys all attempts at reading, and good luck with downloading a PDF over a slow connection; in the end, you will probably just get a corrupted file and have to start the process all over again. These are all things that we, the citizens of the internet, could fix, but I guess that slow connections are not exactly high on our list of priorities. And why should they be? We almost never experience them when we are at home.
4G, 5G, and Beyond? The other elephant in the room that needs to be discussed is the general mobile network coverage in Germany and its trains. If we want people to make use of our great train network, we also need to incentivise that usage. Having a nice internet connection that can be used to actually do some work would be a large plus in my opinion. Who does not like staring wistfully out of the window, thinking about how to formulate a poignant abstract for a conference deadline while sitting on the train? Admittedly, sometimes being offline can be nice—and maybe there should be ‘offline’ compartments in the train—but for all the creature comforts I can enjoy as a passenger on the train (coffee, coffee, coffee, other beverages, good seats, not destroying the environment too much, and much more), why should ‘a stable internet connection’ not be among them?
To the future of travel!