The growing demand for online learning courses (often called “e-learning” or “distance learning”) seems to be showing no sign of slowing down.

This is particularly the case in China, where the market for online courses is set to grow at 20% annuallyHowever video hosting in China is typically problematic for online course providers which means they struggle to achieve the same level of service to their Chinese students as to their students based elsewhere. The primary cause of this is the quality of video playback in China, due to the difficulties of video hosting in China. 

Strikingly most video hosting providers have a major quality gap between video streamed in China and elsewhere – meaning paid content is unable to load in China or buffers regularly during playback. This blog post talks through the reasons why it’s so hard to provide quality video playback to students in China and how at vzaar we’ve managed to resolve it.

Why is video streaming different in China?

Three core issues affect video playback speeds in China:

The Great Firewall

It’s estimated that 2 million individuals in China are employed to censor content on the internet. Videos being sent into China from outside the country are regularly checked by censors, which will mean extremely slow loading times particularly on first viewing. Additionally many of the more familiar video services such as Youtube and Vimeo are completely banned in China.

Server Distance

Video hosting in China is extremely challenging because it requires the provider to establish a Chinese presence and acquire government licenses for content delivery. As a result the majority of video providers will not be serving content using Chinese based servers. Instead the video will be streaming from, most often, the US. The further away the viewer is from the server, the more intermediary points the video has to go through. With response times well over a second for such a journey, the experience with a data-hungry format like video is going to be very poor for viewers.

Slow Broadband Speeds

China ranks 141st in the world for broadband speeds. With the average speed being 2.4 M/bps, Chinese internet users are on a service roughly ten times slower than the average North American or European network. Those speeds are nearly equivalent to the broadband speeds of the UK in 2005. Video delivery demands a lot more data than other content formats, so it will be the first to suffer from a slow connection.

Combining censorship for externally sourced videos, the server distance and the overall slow internet speeds in China, means a lot of international video content can become entirely unwatchable for Chinese viewers.

How we solved it at vzaar

Many of our customers including Future Learn (owned by The Open University) and Gresham College have large user bases in China. So over the past three years we’ve developed a cost-effective way to achieve reliable video hosting in China. There were three main areas we worked on to achieve this:

Established presence and licenses in China  – The most lengthy and challenging part of the process was to receive approval to establish content ‘Points of Presence’ (POPs) in China. These mean that content can be retained inside China limiting the censorship and distance delivery time problems. We now have access to over 60,000 servers across China to deliver high quality video even to those students away from the populous Eastern seaboard.

Built our economies of scale – While we managed to established our in-China presence we then faced the the problem of the very high price of bandwidth in China. Bandwidth is as much as 50 times more expensive than in Western countries. As we launched the service over three years ago we now are able to provide industry-leading prices for in-China playback because of our economies of scale, making it an affordable option for most universities.

Learned the hard way – Achieving the government approval and commercial means to make in-China playback a successful service was a lengthy process. Alongside this, we also needed to build out an entirely separate technical infrastructure to deliver videos through China. This took time and a lot of learning, but we achieved a seamless transition between our two networks. Users of vzaar can now treat their Chinese viewers the same way as any other global audience.


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