How to understand China's internet landscape

What are the factors that causes latency for European brands’ websites outside of the Firewall in China?

This is a contributed piece from Chris Townsley, EMEA Director at CDNetworks

There are a few things about China’s internet landscape that are common knowledge. The first is that it’s a market with huge potential. With over 700 million internet users (695 million of which are mobile internet users), it’s easy to see why.

It is also widely known that China’s internet landscape is somewhat unique thanks to the Great Firewall of China, the region’s internet filtering system, as well as the new Cybersecurity Law that came into force on 1st June this year, further strengthening the region’s regulatory environment.

However, what isn’t well known for countries outside of China is that it’s not just the Firewall that can block certain types of content, cause delays or impact web performance. As a result, many European businesses that have websites in China will often experience a poor website load speed, with some websites taking more than 30 seconds to load. So, what are the factors that causes latency for European brands’ websites outside of the Firewall?

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The causes of latency in China

The first factor that impacts European brands web performance is the sheer distance data has to travel. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 4,000 odd miles between Europe and China contributes to delays and impacts web performance. Usually, distance is the factor that impacts performance the most, as the number of exchanges between the origin server and the end-user adds to website loading time.

The second factor that causes latencies is of course, the Great Firewall itself. But the Great Firewall even causes delays to websites delivered from Hong Kong into China.

The third is the latency caused by China’s internet infrastructure. In China, there are only a limited number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) – there is China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom, to name but a few. These state-owned ISPs are solely responsible for handling the traffic of the 700 million internet users. For traffic to pass between these ISPs, traffic peering is required, and this is where the problem lies.

Peering is the interconnection of networks between ISPs, and is what allows data exchange to take place. It is essentially what allows internet users to connect to almost every public network. But ISPs pay one another to peer – and in China, not only is it expensive to do this, but the interconnection points are also heavily congested. This means that data from one part of the country may not be able to make it to another part.

The limited number of peering points also has a huge impact on reaching China’s internet users. Obviously, not all internet users are in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai. With over 600 cities in China, and with more than 100 of those with one million inhabitants, a huge proportion of potential customers in fact reside in tier two and tier three markets. Which again means that data might not make it to all parts of the country – and that as a business, you can miss a huge proportion of your customer base.

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Because China’s internet infrastructure has limited peering points, fragmented network topology and poor connectivity, simply setting up data centres in China’s major cities is not enough to ensure high performance, as it doesn’t help with delivery across the whole region. For European businesses looking to successfully launch websites in China, tackling in-country latencies in a more targeted fashion is key.

How technology can help

Technology can play a huge role in improving web performance in China and overcoming these latency issues. A content delivery network, for example, will have points of presence (PoP) and infrastructure throughout mainland China. This means the technology will be able to cache data inside the Great Firewall, and each PoP will help accelerate the speed at which content is delivered to the end user.

Thus, when an end user requests a web page, the data is only ever being loaded from a nearby server, so it loads much faster as it has a much shorter distance to travel. This helps overcome the issues with peering and with congested interconnection points as well as helping to reduce the latency caused by the Firewall.

The potential for European businesses in China

With more European businesses looking to penetrate the Chinese market, it’s critical for them to understand how it works. Not only does this mean being au fait with all the country’s regulations, but ensuring they can overcome any latencies will be the difference between success and failure. Chinese internet users are sceptical of slow-loading websites, as they appear unsafe. So, if European businesses do not tackle their website latency issue head on, they risk losing out on this huge market and revenue opportunity to the local alternatives that can deliver their web content quickly, and what appears to be, more securely.