Mobile phone users in Asia want to visit your website. They want what you're selling. But can they get it? Global companies with the desire to reach web users outside the US and Western Europe face a big challenge: slow cell networks.
Many people in Asia Pacific (APAC) and other developing regions access the Internet solely through their mobile devices. Beyond that, most users in those areas don’t yet have expansive 3G LTE networks, let alone 4G. Millions of web users in Asia still only have access to 2G.
For these users, slow pages are a way of life, thanks to slow networks. The best way to break away from the pack and get noticed in these markets is to provide a fast user experience – against the odds.
Mobile Performance is Critical Outside the US and Europe
In the West, smartphones have a high level of penetration at nearly 50%, but PCs are holding fast as the primary device for accessing the Internet. Close to 90% of all pages viewed on the web in the US still come from PCs. In Asia, the process of converting to mobile devices for web access is happening much faster:
- The percentage of web page views from mobile (versus PC) more than doubled in Asia between May 2011 and May 2012, the fastest gains of any global region.
- Asia has the highest percentage of mobile page views of any region, with over 20%
- For comparison, the percentage of total page views from mobile in the US has only recently broken 10%
Faster growth in mobile Internet usage in APAC is due to low PC penetration in developing areas. The cost of PCs has historically been prohibitive in these markets, and cost, coupled with limited network infrastructure for conventional Internet connections, meant low adoption, especially outside of cities.
Mobile Internet has been a boon for users in these areas. Not only are the devices significantly cheaper, but also Internet access over cell networks is accessible to a much greater number of people.
- In some countries, like Egypt and India, clear majorities of mobile Internet users are also mobile only – they do not regularly have access to or use a PC.
- Last year there were more mobile Internet users in China than any other country, with nearly half a billion. (OnDeviceResearch; via mobiThinking)
The bottom line: The number of Internet users in APAC and other developing regions is growing fast, and they are increasingly using mobile phones as the primary device for viewing web pages.
Most of APAC Still on 2G
In 2011, Synergy Reseach Group reported that it was “still the early days” of LTE in Asia. And despite rapid growth in the past year, that fact remains. Networks have been springing up in APAC, but adoption is slow due to the substantial setup cost. Many network providers have only recently plunked down cash for the move to 3G, and must weigh strategic goals and company finances in the face of demand for LTE. (SRG via mobiThinking; Frost and Sullivan via ZDNet)
Furthermore, 4G LTE has not yet reached the biggest market of all: China. The more than 1 billion mobile phone subscribers in China must wait for the government’s promised establishment of 4G LTE licenses, which is expected this year. Only then can network providers start the long process of setting up networks. Meanwhile, less than a quarter of those billion+ mobile users had even 3G as of last year, leaving hundreds of millions of users on slow 2G networks. (ZDNet; TNW)
The bottom line: The mobile Internet users in APAC are plagued by slow page load times due to outdated cell networks, and though that's starting to change, progress is slow and far behind Europe and North America.
So How Can You Make Your Site Faster in APAC?
Waiting for network providers in APAC to catch up with the West in network technology is a losing proposition for a web-based business. Widespread adoption of 3G and LTE could be years off, especially in China. Meanwhile, billions people are surfing web pages on their mobile phones, and for the most part experiencing slow page loads. It’s an uphill battle to offer a good user experience on slow networks, but it’s far from impossible. (ZDNet)
Will CDNs help?
Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are the mainstream infrastructure solution for ensuring that far-flung PC users are able to access a website with a user experience comparable to local users. With a CDN, cached content is placed in edge locations around the world, solving the “middle mile” challenge of geographic latency.
A CDN does not solve the core challenge for mobile users, though. On a mobile network, the main performance bottleneck is in the “last mile” of delivery, when website assets travel from the cell tower to the phone -- a relatively short distance that renders geographic latency a non-issue. Some of the problems within the “last mile” of asset delivery are:
- High transmission delay
- High error rate
- Low bandwidth
- Limited capacity at cellphone towers
These are network problems that have no infrastructure-based solution like a CDN, meaning there’s no recourse for the website owner wanting a faster page load. To make a site faster, then, the solution must come from the content and makeup of the site itself.
The Solution: Front-End Optimization (FEO)
One way to make a site faster on a slow mobile network is through front-end optimization (FEO). FEO is increasingly common on the web, independent of its applicability to mobile-specific sites. But FEO’s potential performance benefit for users on slow cell networks is huge. For example, Dell was able to shave 3 seconds off their mobile page load time by shaving just 24 KB off their site’s footprint. (StreamingMedia)
FEO techniques with particular relevance to mobile sites include:
- Reducing the number of round trip requests. Since the “last mile” (the trip from the tower to the phone) is the main bottleneck for mobile, the number of trips made along that last mile should be reduced as much as possible. A site with fewer assets will require fewer trips across the slow network pathway in order to finish loading. Worse, high error rate and limited capacity at the tower causes sites with lots of assets to fail more often. Script concatenation, data URIs, and CSS sprites are all examples of ways to reduce the number of requests without cutting content on the site.
- Reducing payload. The fewer bytes traveling on the network the better. Low bandwidth means big files take longer to come across the last mile. Increasing the client side caching and storage, compressing assets on the site with GZIP or lossy/lossless image compression, and deduplicating packets are all ways to compress total size.
The other approach to optimizing sites for mobile has to do with the site protocols. HTTP, TCP, and IP protocols are not optimized for high-latency mobile networks. This is a more difficult procedure, however, that requires specific expertise.
The techniques we just mentioned can be performed manually by developers. There are also automated site optimization services that apply FEO techniques to all pages on a site on the fly, eliminating the need to repeat the implementation of techniques when site content is added or changed.
If you want to test your site's current mobile performance, we recommend MobiTest. To test your site's overall performance in APAC, you can use our free website performance test. To get started learning the kinds of FEO techniques mentioned in this article, you can download our free eBook on web performance optimization techniques below!
Alex is a writer by training and marketer by trade, currently managing digital marketing at Yottaa. Writing here at the intersection of user experience, app performance, and conversion optimization. Summer = an unfortunate break between ski seasons.