SMS/Low bandwidth Maker Faire Africa session

For those who didn’t know, Maker Faire Africa was not only a fair of those who make things, but it also had a number of open-forum sessions tied in to it to talk about various African-related tech items. On Sunday I was part of this one that blended together building SMS applications with building for low bandwidth. The two items aren’t mutually exclusive of one another, but obviously, it’s a touch hard to talk about them both at the same time and the conversation went from one to the other.

For me personally, hearing what the Ghanaian developers had to say about low bandwidth (as well as low latency) web developing was interesting. Everyone in the room admitted to the fact that the websites they build for clients are all hosted in the US. Why? Cost. Pure and simple. The deals you get on hosting in the US are better than pretty much anywhere else in the world. This makes sense as the US still wrongfully clings on the ICAAN (the governing body that regulates domain names) group when it should be a world body.

The big problem with this is that then all of the root servers (for that . that is actually after any domain name which no one ever types– will work just as well as are in the US and so you’re stuck with the fact that even if you were to build a website for Ghana to be hosted in Ghana, you’ve still got to ping these root servers which are located in the US. There is no way around this for anyone in the world and it slows down every site not viewed by a US user.

Ghana has pretty solid internet bandwidth overall (again, more on that in the future) so for developers here, the issue is less about making a site that is lean and more about making a site that reduces latency. If they are hosting a site in the US, then every single piece of that site needs to be grabbed form the US and that’s a lot of cable to traverse for the simple process of displaying a web page. This has an ill effect when it comes to AJAX development as while AJAX would be an ideal system to use a lot of in a low bandwidth site (AJAX requests are not a whole web page and are thus, much smaller) the latency makes it nearly untenable, although there are were a few developers in the crowd working to try and make it happen.

I posed the question as to why not host in England or France? All of the internet cables for West Africa terminate in either of these countries and so, while you still have the root servers in the US problem, you at least cut down on the latency issues for loading the site. There were some in the audience that admitted sites were indeed faster when hosted closer, but again, the problem was cost. With the exchange rates, those hosting deals in pounds sterling or euros are exorbitant.

What I took away from this is that all of us developers are aware of the shortcomings on the internet. All we can do is to work around them as best we can until that day when costs go down or ICAAN is moved out of the US. Afterall, if Google, whose home page in the US loads in a tenth of second, can’t get it to load faster than three seconds in Ghana, there probably isn’t much to be done about the issue at the moment.