By Oiwan Lam
Customers of China Telecom in Shanghai, known as Shanghai Telecom, have been all but unable to connect to overseas websites since June. Stemming from a supposed lack of bandwidth, the problem is affecting sites that are not “politically sensitive” and thus are not blocked by the domestic censorship filter of the Great Fire Wall, such as Apple and Microsoft official sites.
The problem now has persisted for over a month and appears to be taking a toll on the city’s business sector. Shanghai Telecom claims that the situation resulted from a data overloading problem in the nodes that connect to the overseas network.
To ameliorate the situation, Shanghai Telecom now offers customers an “International nitrogen cylinder plan,” which provides 50MB download and 10MB upload bandwidth to Internet users for visiting non-blocked overseas websites. The monthly fee for 24-hour access to overseas sites is RMB$480 (approximately US$70.00). This is triple the cost of a regular Internet access fee of RMB$150 (approximately US$ 25.00). Each “cylinder” — which provides a stable connection to overseas network for 3 hours — costs users RMB$2 (approximately US$ 0.3).
To visit blocked sites such as Facebook and YouTube, Internet users have to use an additional VPN service.
Ni Eriming, a finance law researcher based in Shanghai, has been calling attention to the situation on China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform Weibo since July:
These days, I have been trying to access overseas sites through VPN. The connection has been so slow that I could not access a majority of the sites. I kept changing my VPNs, but the situation has not been improved. Today, I searched around online and found out that Shanghai Telecom had blocked overseas access and it only guarantees domestic network access. It previously launched an overseas access plan call “overseas visit gift shop” and charged for an extra of RMB200 yuan [approximately US$30 dollars], but the service expired on July 16. What can I say?
He further explained the problem he encountered:
This time I attempted to visit American Airlines’ website to book plane tickets, a hotel booking site, US government site, overseas travel advice sites. All failed even with/without VPN. I reinstalled the computer system and still failed. I was so frustrated and searched around for solution. It seems that all domestic Internet plans’ overseas visit have been blocked. I was totally terrified.
As the original Internet connection contract includes overseas Internet access, Ni called Shanghai Telecom to inquire about fixing the network. A repair worker told him the problem “could not be fixed”:
Today, I called the maintenance service. The telecom repair worker came. Upon hearing my complaint about the problem of overseas access, he told me directly that it could not be fixed. All of China is experiencing this problem and they don’t have any solution. The previous “overseas access gift shop” did not work well and ceased to operate….
However, netizens in other regions, such as Guangzhou, say they haven’t encountered the same problem. Many believe that Shanghai Telecom’s business strategy is at fault.
In April 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang prompted the industry to cut mobile Internet service charges and increase traffic speeds. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the industry regulator, pledged to find ways to lower prices on fourth-generation telecom services. As the country’s first free trade zone, Shanghai Telecom’s latest move may be a business experiment intended to meet policy objectives by lowering the price of domestic Internet access and then compensating for those losses by increasing charges for overseas access.
Social media users have expressed outrage over Shanghai Telecom’s response to customer complaints and the launch of the “International nitrogen cylinder plan.” China Digital Times published copies of some of the online responses to the situation:
Spellingford: #ShanghaiTelecom restrict overseas Internet #access. This is a commercial fraud. It restricts consumers’ connections without telling them. Even when you sign up for the service, they do not notify the consumers. Isn’t this an illegal monopoly behavior?
Lin Peimeng: Shanghai claims that it has to compete with Hong Kong to be an international city. But it can’t even link to overseas sites. What I am talking about it is not politically sensitive sites, but sites such as overseas universities, corporations, and tech communities. Even with paid VPN services, the connection cannot be made. I have been trying to access Microsoft official sites, but failed after three attempts. Let’s compete with Pingyang, don’t insult Hong Kong.
Huang Jiawei 1984: As a Chinese citizen, at this moment, I support the US imperialism to tear down the Great Fire Wall. Chinese people suffers too much.
As Shanghai Telecom is a sub-branch of China Telecom, many wonder if services will soon begin to falter in other cities in China. If commercial restrictions on accessing overseas sites becomes common practice nationwide, the Chinese Internet could become a de facto domestic network for the majority of Internet users.