Blogs & Comment

The web is getting fatter as data plans shrink

The average website size is growing substantially. This will undoubtedly cause problems with existing data plans.


(Photo: Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Here’s a funny joke you can tell at the next party you’re at (warning: it’ll only get laughs if you happen to be partying with a bunch of nerds): how are Americans like websites? Answer: they’re both getting fatter.

It’s true. The obesity epidemic—as it pertains to people’s actual waist sizes—is well documented. The web’s bloat, however, not so much.

Back in December, the HTTP Archive reported that the average website size had grown to just about one megabyte in size. That’s more than triple the size of three years ago, when the average was about 300 kilobytes. This growth is pretty standard—websites averaged only about 14 KB way back in 1995—but things are about to get a whole lot worse as Apple seeks to again reshape the web with its high-definition Retina displays.

One estimate figures that websites will climb to about 5 MB as a result. As some observers have noted, that’s going to have dire repercussions on internet users—especially here in Canada, where usage limits are low.

Web traffic is still the third biggest use of the internet, making up about 16%, according to Sandvine. That’s down from about 38% in 2009, with online video through the likes of Netflix coming on strong in that time. Video consumption isn’t likely to go down any time soon, which means the fatter web is going to contribute to larger usage overall.

It’s not as big of a problem with home wired networks and their bigger caps, but it is in wireless. Let’s do the math. If $17 gets you 250 MB of data for your iPad per month, that’s about 50 web page views per month or 1.6 each day. And that’s only if you view websites, never mind YouTube videos or app downloads. It’s hard to say how many websites the average person visits, but not too many users keep it to less than two a day.

Carriers in both Canada and the United States have been ratcheting down the amount of data users get in exchange for faster LTE speeds. Now, 100 MB and 200 MB are not uncommon. Remember the days where if you got into an argument with a friend at a bar over who was in that movie, and you could easily whip out the old smartphone to check? Better think twice as more and more of the web goes Retina.

Many websites have “optimized” versions for mobile phones, which is another way of saying they’re stripped down so that they load faster on slower wireless networks and display better on smaller screens. Still, the web has been getting fatter regardless of Apple’s Retina displays, while usage limits have been heading the other way. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or network engineer—to see that we’re heading for a big collision: carriers versus customers.