Why latency is the most important thing

Latency. It’s the measure of how long you wait for something after you ask for it. It’s the most important way to measure performance. How’s that?

How long did it take for this article to come up? A second? Several seconds? Even longer? Here at Solid Signal we’ve put a lot of time, effort and money into having fast servers and an optimized platform, but we can’t control the whole internet. Some folks with slower connections will wait longer for the page to load.

It’s about the experience.

That time waiting for things to load shapes your whole experience. It’s what defines your initial impression of happiness or sadness, whether it’s a blog or an e-commerce site. Latency isn’t just web sites, either. Latency is how long it takes for you to get a waiter or waitress when you decide you need one. It’s how long you wait at the airport. It’s being stuck in traffic, waiting for your friend to show up, or waiting for the alarm to ring when you can’t sleep. Latency is how long it takes for the government to do something when everyone knows there is a problem. Latency is everywhere.

Solving latency in real life is a little beyond our purview, but we do pride ourselves on giving you a speedy experience here. We use industry standard techniques to speed up this site. We put it on a fast server. Also, we use pictures that are sized so they load fast. And, we even use special techniques to slim down the images and make sure they only load when you want them to.

Latency in cellular connections

In the last several years, internet communication has moved off the desktop and into the palm of your hand. Up to 80% of all internet traffic is now mobile, and a lot of that is using cellular data. That’s why companies like AT&T are working toward 5G networks. Sure, 5G is fast. You can download a 4K movie in 12 seconds. But more importantly, it has low latency. You get that web page to load faster, and your internet feels faster because of it.

What can you do if latency is a problem?

If you think your internet experience is slow, try testing using a site like speedtest.net that gives you ping times. You’ve probably used sites like this before but concentrated on those download speeds. Here’s the truth: download speeds aren’t super important, as long as you can get above 5Mbps. A high ping time, anything over 50ms, can be a killer. That means a useless 1/20th of a second every time an internet query is made. That doesn’t sound like much but when browsing you may be issuing 100-200 queries just to load a single web page. That’s 4 wasted seconds after every click. It adds up.

If your connection has high latency (long ping times) contact your internet service provider or cell company. Many companies have a tendency of leaving customers with expensive, slow plans even after they’ve rolled out new, faster ones. You may find that speeds you once thought unthinkable are now within your price range.

Latency is a moving taret

We’re spoiled today, of course; there was a time that connecting to the internet at all took 2-3 minutes. A 30-second wait before seeing the first bit of a web page was normal, and loading a media-rich page on a mobile device like a first-generation iPhone could take an impossibly long time. Even just loading a basic mobile experience was like waiting for your driver’s license test. In those days we didn’t depend on the internet, or our cell phones or GPS-enabled devices. Today, it’s much more important to have fast access, and as this article shows, fast access means low latency.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.