How we get online is broken. Let’s design a better way.

Quintin Carlson
May 15 · 9 min read

The internet is full of amazing things. Including the greatest gif of all time:

But getting onto the internet leaves you screaming at your screen.

Buffering.

Throttling.

Calling 611.

Captive portals.

Creepy ad tracking.

Data caps for home internet.

That Router/Modem/Nightmare combo from your ISP.

When your phone connects to WiFi with one bar and now there’s no internet and nothing works and you start crying.

Let’s step away from the specific technical implementation of internet access, rather turning our attention to how we experience it everyday. The roundup of how we get online is an exploration of learned helplessness.

We’ll walk through how we access the internet at home, at work, and on the go. Then, I’ll touch on how we’re designing Magic to eliminate these shitty experiences and improve how we connect and pay for access to the internet.

via Giphy

At home

Here in the beautiful US of A, we have a government anointed oligopoly providing the vast majority of internet access. I am, by far, not the first to talk “lack of choice” — one of the main reasons we still fight for net neutrality is due to this lack of competition.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance measured that 40% of Americans have access to only one option for broadband service. According to Vice, of Americans with more than one broadband provider, 50% of ISPs have less than stellar net neutrality records. Beyond that, 24 million Americans have zero access to broadband service.

We need to improve choice to improve your connection to the internet.

Urban Lock-In

In major cities — like here in Chicago, in San Francisco, or in New York City — consumers often have access to broadband from a single provider. This lack of choice is intensified in high-rises, apartment complexes, and multiple dwelling units (MDUs).

Many landlords will sign a contract with a single internet provider, who provides kickbacks based on subscriber rate. My building even bundles a low-end AT&T “broadband” internet service plan with my utility package. This meant that even if a local ISP started offering competing service, I would be forced to continue to pay for AT&T each month as part of my lease agreement.

Cities like New York have been working for years to improve internet speeds, service, and access. But they get stuck negotiating to anoint a single fiber provider due to the immense capital costs of an initial network rollout. Featured in an episode of Gimlet’s Reply All podcast, the complexity of the NYC/Verizon FiOS franchise agreement was put on full display. San Francisco is also recently kicked off propocal process to select a single fiber franchise operator for a FFTP — “Fiber to the Premises” — across the city.

Listen to Reply All, Episode #60 for more details on Verizon FiOS in NYC.

No matter how you highlight the lack of choice, single operator service leads to a rough (at best) user experience. This lock-in leave users without leverage. From hostile customer support, to high prices, to poor privacy policies, we get stuck. Net neutrality, the regulation preventing ISPs from messing with your connection, is inherently a response to dismal levels of provider competition.

We need to improve choice to improve your connection to the internet.

Equipment Hell

Beyond single-operator oligopolies, ISPs are notorious for pushing for use of their own, rented equipment. Without permission or user accessible control, these routers block peer-to-peer services, broadcast unwanted guest networks, and insert extra advertisements onto webpages.

This is beyond the normal difficult to use web interfaces to change default passwords and help users implement basic network security.

This router user experience is truly the best of AT&T. “More bad UX, that’s our thing.”

These devices often cost upwards of $20 per month, as compared to one-time payments of $30–100 for routers and modems. Some providers, like AT&T U-Verse and Comcast Xfinity require use of their proprietary hardware to take advantage of digital TV services, phone service, and more.

Scale Introduces Problems

Regional ISPs in the United States have merged to create a limited number of nationwide providers. They’ve grown so large it’s simply hard to manage such a widespread network with tens of millions of customers. When most of the country relies on a single ISP, like we in the United States do with Comcast Xfinity, they become a single point of failure. In June of last year, Comcast experienced a nationwide outage due to a single split in fiber optic lines.

Mesh

With more devices connected at home — smart fridges, tablets, and TVs — the concepts found in corporate mesh services are trickling down into home router products to provide a more seamless and reliable network. The latest and greatest in router-tech is based on using more than a single base station to broadcast WiFi coverage in the home — blending and extending coverage seamlessly. This technology has been widely adopted thanks to upstarts like Eero and Plume.

Unfortunately, in urban environments, mesh WiFi can’t save you from interference caused by the networks of your neighbors. Stacking 10 or 20 nearby networks is never going to lead to incredibly stable and high speed network.

The app based router setup experience, common with mesh systems, has ushered in a wave of easier-to-use and easier-to-setup hardware devices. Built in support and interactive guides help more people install and secure their home network. However, it also has brought the concepts of leased hardware and mandatory subscription services into the home router space.

via Giphy

At Work

Even ten years ago, many consumer’s only access to high speed, truly broadband internet, was at their office. It became so prevalent, that Cyber Monday began to outpace Black Friday, as it was first day after the Thanksgiving holiday users could shop online easily.

In this modern era, work has become a world BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Employers expect their employees to carry smartphones and remain in touch at a moment’s notice. EMM (Enterprise Mobility Management) and MDM (Mobile Device Management) is now standard. Employee privacy remains second class to corporate device policies — with IT departments’s direct and often unrestricted access to device information.

My kind of cafe, via Giphy

Third Places

In Starbuck’s parlance, it’s not quite home, it’s not quite at work. It’s a third place. It might be the local coffee shop. It might be the library, the hotel, or the Admirals Club at O’Hare Airport.

Security

All around us is badly managed, semi-public wireless access. Sure, you might need the password from the barista, or your library card number, or frequent flier number. But shared passwords are as secure as shit anyway right?

I’ve spent hours conducting user research on how and where people jump onto WiFi networks. The fear of hackers stealing banking credentials or leaning personal information is real. From these user interviews, I’ve observed how users avoid accessing sensitive data while connected to public networks. I’ve seen how they check with cafe and hotel employees to ensure they are connecting to the establishment’s WiFi, not just any open network.

However, when it comes down to it, the only true way to secure yourself on open networks is through a VPN. In terms of security, you shift the “attack vector” from the local WiFi network to the servers of your VPN provider. You’re using someone else’s computer, someone else’s network to get online. You pray they aren’t peering into your web traffic and are properly respecting your privacy. And you hope that they don’t interfere with…

Captive portals. Ugh.

These stink at coffee shops and hotels and at the airport. In the air, they are (somehow) more infuriating due to the slow, dial-up nature of GoGo Inflight. Captive portals — those windows that appear when you connect to a network asking you to read “Terms & Conditions of Use” before getting online. The hallmark of corporate networks.

You aren’t likely to read Hilton’s WiFi Usage Agreement when staying there. Personally, I know if my company stuck our General Counsel on it, he’d find some sort of egregious language around Hilton’s unlimited license and copyright to any photo sent, blog post written, movie rights based on the relationship of who you Tinder with while on the network.

Once you’re online, enjoy the slow speeds and hourly disconnection service.

Me swatting away captive portals, via Giphy

Try Tethering

In my research, one of the most surprising findings was how often participants were tethering to their smartphone for internet access. Mobile hotspot service from cellular carriers remains one of the more reliable and secure options for accessing the internet on the go. Just make sure that you don’t hit a data cap — sorry “prioritization point”—while streaming Netflix during your next flight delay, otherwise your carrier may cellular data speeds until the end of your billing cycle.


Four Reasons the Current UX is Shit

When we review the way we access the internet, we see the shit we deal with everyday. We have experience after experience that leaves us confused, disconnected, insecure, or left destitute with a pile of burnt money. (Sometimes, all of the above.)

Based on hundreds of hours of research, we can segment these problems into a short-list of friction points:

  • 🤷🏼‍♂️ Unreliable: will the internet work when I’m connected to it? Will it be fast enough to be usable?
  • 🙅🏼‍♂️ Insecure: is someone going to snatch my passwords or steal my identity using the data I send over the network?
  • 🤦🏼‍♂️ Opaque: Do I know who is behind the network? Is it clear what the costs, limits, and requirements are?
  • 🙆🏼‍♂️ Inflexible: Am I stuck with this experience, or can I switch providers or networks?

Building the Future

Stepping back, what would a better experience look like? What would an ideal way we connect to the internet be? This is my focus as the Head of Design for Magic— creating a new kind internet experience that you can trust and that works for you. (Not against you.)

It’s an internet connection that’s:

  • 🥳 Reliable: When we connect to a network, we have proof that it will work. That we can depend on it.
  • 🔑 Secure: Your data is encrypted, end-to-end, 100% of the time. The only person who knows what websites you went to is you.
  • 🤓 Transparent: Pricing is clear. You know what you’re getting for your money. Network policies are human-readable.
  • 🧘🏼‍♂️ Flexible: You automatically shift between providers for the fastest, cheapest service.

One last key design goal for Magic is to make connecting to the internet completely forgettable. I want the world to stop thinking about “connecting to the internet” and just be connected, automatically. If all of our hard work into the nitty-gritty technical details and effort we’ve put into simplifying the setup process pays off, the best part of Magic is that you stop thinking about it. Internet access is just, simply there.

The best experience for accessing the internet would be no experience at all.

Today, we spend too much of our time and mental energy just managing our connection to the internet. We want to give you all that time back that you spent fighting with AT&T on the phone. Waiting for Comcast to show up. Calling technical support to figure out why your WiFi isn’t working. Even all the time you spent just looking at your WiFi menu each day.

We want to make access to the internet seamless. This is just the start on my “Designing the Future of the Internet” series. (If you come up with a better name, let me know!) We can’t wait for you to forget about how you get online, and just be online. Watching more Oprah gifs.


Join us. Sign up for Magic and be part of the future of the internet and follow this publication for more details.

magic.

Magic is Internet Service from the Future. — https://magic.co

Thanks to Pia Opulencia and Sean Nelson

Quintin Carlson

Written by

vp design @Hologram. former ux research lead @Flexport.

magic.

magic.

Magic is Internet Service from the Future. — https://magic.co

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