In most African countries, the majority of websites targeting a local audience are hosted abroad, generally in North America or Europe.
However, the Rwanda Information & Communication Technology Association (RICTA) points out that hosting websites abroad stifles the growth of a local content infrastructure, as well as of local content development and services. Therefore, local hosting forms an important stepping stone to the development of a robust local Internet economy.
That is the main message from a study carried out by RICTA with the assistance of the Internet Society titled ‘The Benefits of Local Content Hosting.’ Published last month, the study examined the progress Rwanda has made in terms of hosting content locally.
Speaking after the presentation of the report, Ghislain Nkeramugaba, the Chief Executive Officer of RICTA, explained that the agency had conducted a pilot project in which websites were moved from international to domestic hosting.
“We measured the positive impacts on the websites, both in terms of latency measurements, as well as in terms of visitor behaviour. Local content hosting offers several key advantages, such as greater visitor engagement due to shorter loading times, as well as a possible reduced cost of access for consumers, due to lower Internet Service Provider (ISP) spending on international bandwidth,” he explained.
The effort to localize hosting in Rwanda is part of a larger move by the Government to increase the amount of content served locally. Nkeramugaba said Rwanda already has a Google Global Cache, as well as a node for the Content Delivery Network (CDN), Akamai both generally serving international content.
The Government chose RICTA as the Rwandan registry and as the manager of the Rwandan Internet Exchange Point (IXP), to manage the pilot phase of the local hosting project under the name “Rwanda Content Hosting”. The Internet Society provided technical expertise for the analysis of the impact of the project.
According to the report, the structure of the market in Rwanda is such that, generally, developers provide a full range of services for their clients – they develop the websites, do or resell hosting, and provide the domain names as registrars who sell the local domains (notably .rw and .co.rw). For website hosting, they generally turn to large US-based hosting providers, such as GoDaddy, and for website design, they often use a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress.
Various reasons are given by developers for why they host in the US or in Europe as preferred to hosting in Rwanda. Primarily, they note that the monthly cost of hosting is lower, especially in the United States. The latter is the most common option, with over half of all .rw and .co.rw websites being hosted there. However, to counter this, Nkeramugaba said that RICTA had recently made efforts to lower the costs of local hosting to match the global rates in a bid to encourage more institutions to host locally.
“Our goal is to make local hosting cheaper than the global rates,” he said.
In addition, during interviews developers often mentioned historic doubts about reliability and uptime of hosting in Rwanda. This is something that is frequently mentioned in countries like Rwanda that rely on overseas hosting and therefore, countries that wish to improve or begin local hosting should focus on removing any unfounded fears of reliability.
“We note that there were no issues with uptime for hosting in Rwanda during the year-long pilot phase,” states the report.
Favourable uptime information along with the advantage of faster loading times can help to persuade website owners to use local hosting platforms. The study found that moving websites to Rwanda dramatically lowered the latency and loading times. As a result, those websites improved their visitor engagement in various metrics such as return visits, pages viewed and overall number of visitors. This is likely to be a result of the decreased loading time of the websites.
In addition, website developers have more business opportunities by being able to act as a reseller of hosting capacity and having the opportunity for greater skill development.
The developers also wished that they had learned about the benefits of local hosting sooner.
“The main problem that came forward during the pilot phase of the project was the issue of developers using outdated software on their websites, which was exposed when the websites migrated to the local server,” continues the report. “This weakness enabled outsiders to send spam messages that appeared to come from the migrated websites, which eventually led to one of the three servers being blocked by companies such as Google, which classified all email originating from this IP address as spam in its Gmail service,”
Nkeramugaba emphasized however that local content hosting is important because of the direct and measurable impacts on user engagement with local websites.
“Local content hosting helps to develop vibrant data centres and web hosting providers, which in turn help to support the development of more local content and services,” he explained.
The availability of local content also brings new users online, and contributes to jobs and revenues for local entrepreneurs. As such, governments should see local content hosting as a key ingredient in developing a local Internet economy.
Another key advantage of local content hosting is that, as more traffic originates from local servers, this allows ISPs and telecommunication companies in the country to fulfil demand with less capacity on international cables, thereby reducing costs.
“Ideally, savings in the purchase of international bandwidth would offset the higher electricity costs of local hosting, thereby lowering the cost of access,” Nkeramugaba explained. “In addition to the increased content relevance from the locally hosted websites, the reduced cost of access will translate to greater Internet adoption, enhancing the virtuous circle of a greater number of users and a greater amount of relevant content.”
Based on the study’s findings, the Internet Society recommended the following for Rwanda’s internet stakeholders to create an enabling environment for local content hosting:
First, it is important to have an awareness of the issues, starting with the benefits of local content hosting described in the report.
Secondly, it is important to have a dialogue between stakeholders, such as local content workshops.
Thirdly, it is important to present data and information about key issues, including content regulations (or lack thereof), and cost and reliability of local data centres.
To help to lower the cost of creating and running data centres, tax breaks on equipment imports and lowering energy costs could play an important role in helping to match the prices of overseas data centres, particularly before the local ones have significant economies of scale.
Understanding content regulations is also important, so that content providers have certainty about the rules that may apply to them. This includes, in particular, issues of intermediary liability – it is important for developers and hosting providers to know whether they are liable for their clients’ content.
Training and capacity development is also important for content providers, website developers, hosting providers and data centre operators, to help develop a vibrant local content ecosystem.
Developing a regional market, for instance building on the regional integration being fostered by the Northern Corridor initiative in East Africa, can help to develop scale for data centres, to increase investment and lower the cost of hosting.
Data centres should ensure that their pricing is as competitive and transparent as possible to help attract customers, and provide information on their uptime reliability and security levels, using third-party certification if possible.
ISPs are the indirect beneficiaries of local content hosting, because it saves them buying expensive international capacity. While they do not make the decisions on where content is hosted, they can play an important role in helping to raise awareness, and could also go so far as to offer to subsidize short trial periods of local hosting (particularly if, as is often the case, they own their own data centre – the savings on international capacity could be used to subsidize local hosting).
Website developers and hosting providers should understand the benefits of local content hosting, and also ensure that the Content Management Systems underlying the websites they develop are kept fully up to date, using upgrades if possible, to protect against spam or other attacks. Automated systems such as Installatron or the opensource Bitnami can help with this.
Finally, content providers should play an active role in hosting decisions because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of local content hosting, in terms of increased page views and customer engagement.
Read this article and more in issue n° 75 of Hope Magazine.