The Great Firewall of China prevents internet users from fully appreciating the internet. Despite having the largest internet market in the world, China has an average internet speed of approximately 75 kb/s – less than half than that of the global average. How does the slow internet connection speed interrupt China’s economic growth and what is China going to do about it?
Much has been discussed about the huge investment that China has been putting into almost every aspect of its economy: infrastructure, education, environment, agriculture, health, and the list goes on and on. Yet, if there is one crucial area in which China has been lagging behind, it is the internet, and the main reason why the internet has been left back is the Great Firewall of China.
The Great Firewall of China is merely an expression that describes how the China Internet system works. China has the largest internet market in the world; More than 477 million people use the internet in China today, and the number keeps rising every year. But it is not only the number of people who are using the internet that is on the rise: Telegeography reports that the average time spent surfing the web was 19.8 hours per week in China. In contrast, Americans spend an average of 13 hours online a week, according to a Harris Interactive poll from December, 2010.
It is hard to describe the feeling of using the internet in China: The connection is often too slow to surf the web, not too mention the fact that many websites are censored and unaccessible due to the Great Firewall of China: You can forget about Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, and there have been occasions that the New York Times or Linkedin have been blocked as well. But, recently, the situation has gotten much worse: Google, and specifically Gmail, is occasionally unaccessible in China. Google issued a statement last March in which it accuses China of tempering with its services: “We have checked extensively. This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail, and there is no technical issue on our side.”
The Great Firewall of China
For our readers who are out of China and who did not have the “fortune” to experience the Great Firewall of China, it is difficult to describe the frustration one experiences from not being able to surf the web properly, especially in Asia, which homes some of the fastest internet connection countries in the world such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. According to the latest report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released in January, the average internet speed in Shanghai is 73.2 kb/s (!!!). To compare, the average internet speed in neighboring Japan is 60 mb/s (60,000 kb/s) – almost 1000 times as fast as the average speed in Shanghai, while in the U.S the average internet speed is 5 mb/s (5000 kb/s) – more than 70 times as fast as that in China.
It is hard to estimate the cost of the slow internet connection to China’s economy: An investment banker who cannot send an e-mail to his client or a supplier who cannot reach his buyers are a few examples of potential money loss that occurs on a daily basis because of the Great Firewall of China. More importantly, if China wishes to become more innovative (as defined in the 12th five year plan), it must provide with faster and freer internet connections. Currently, the average internet speed in China is less than half than that of the global average. These data mean that many internet start ups might choose to relocate from China or not to start their business in China, because they will constantly need to deal with internet problems; A situation which is a loss for China and for the world.
Despite the above, things might be changing: Last April, China approved a stimulus plan that is calling for a $22 billion US investment in fiber optic networks that will establish more than 80 million fiber broadband ports by the end of 2011. To increase the deployment of the technology, the stimulus program will provide tax incentives and subsidies to domestic fiber broadband equipment manufacturers as well as to vendors of optical chips and optical modules. China’s internet providers have set up goals for themselves: China Telecom wants to deliver 100 Mbp/s speeds by 2013, and China Mobile hoping to do the same in five years.
What About the Great Firewall?
It is difficult to quantify the value of a fast internet connection, yet it is clear that fast internet symbolizes advancement and progressiveness. A huge population that uses a 100 mbp/s internet connection speed will help drive innovation and will put China on the map as one of the most attractive business locations in the world. Fast internet means faster ways to convey information, thus making it that much easier for people in China to engage in global business and to connect with the rest of the world.
One can only hope that an increase in the internet speed in China will occur in the next few years. Until then, we will have no choice but to refresh our web-pages and to restart our routers and modems on an hourly basis.