For an hour every Tuesday, Facebook employees can choose to be reminded what it’s like to access the Web on a 2G wireless connection. Pages load slowly. Photos take dozens of seconds to fully download. Streaming video is out of the question entirely.
If you live in an area that’s covered by a speedy 4G LTE wireless network, or even a stable 3G network, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to have Internet access through wireless technology that’s several generations older, and several orders of magnitude slower.
In the US the average download speed over 4G LTE is 10 megabits per second (Mbps), according a report from wireless research firm OpenSignal; and mobile users in South Korea and Singapore enjoy LTE download speeds of about 30 Mbps and nearly ubiquitous coverage.
By contrast, the average wireless speed over a 2G connection is 0.1 Mbps.
2G coverage still exists in the US, but it was made obsolete long ago by newer technologies. However, 2G is the most common way of getting online in countries such as Thailand, Ecuador, and India, where Facebook is trying to bring more people online for the first time.
Facebook hopes that by letting its employees access the Internet the way millions of people around the world do – very slowly – they’ll be able to empathize with what those users experience.
“On the lower end of 2G networks, it can take about two minutes to download a webpage,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We need to understand how people use Facebook in different internet connections in all parts of the world so we can build the best experience for them.”
Facebook also hopes the experience will reveal ways the company can make its products more useful for users in emerging markets. Earlier this year, the company rolled out Facebook Lite, a slimmed-down version of its app that does away with auto-loading videos, high-def photos, and textures in order to lower data usage for users with slow connections. And last year, the company made a major but scarcely noticed overhaul to the Facebook Android app, making the program 65 percent smaller and 50 percent more efficient.
Facebook is also taking other steps to bring better Internet connections to developing countries. While the company’s Internet.org project, also known as Free Basics, has attracted criticism from groups who say it violates "net neutrality" principles by prioritizing Facebook’s own services over those of rivals, Facebook has succeeded in bringing zippier Internet to users in 25 countries so far.