18 July 2019
Digital Silk Road Set to Bring the Internet to Nepal's Remote Regions
The BRI's cyber-counterpart is snaking through the Himalayas as it looks to digitally enfranchise 6.5 million Nepalis.
While the major port projects, rail links and logistics upgrades that have been the most tangible links in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – China's ambitious international infrastructure development and trade facilitation programme – have received extensive coverage, the growth of the virtual network that is being developed in parallel with the global investment in bricks and mortar has flown relatively under the radar. Unofficially branded the Digital Silk Road, this complementary initiative is intended to boost connectivity and facilitate rapid information transfer, while also digitally enfranchising residents in certain parts of the world for the first time.
A prime example of this is the 2,197km optical fibre network that is currently under construction in Nepal, the remote Himalayan country where half the 28-million strong population currently has no internet access whatsoever. With the country previously wholly-reliant on the goodwill of neighbouring India for its fairly rudimentary internet connection, the notion of establishing an alternative link via China was first mooted in 2013, with the disastrous earthquake that shook Nepal in 2015 seeing these initial plans temporarily put on hold.
In 2016, new life was breathed into the project when a formal agreement was signed between China Telecom (the majority shareholder in China Comservice) and Nepal Telecom with regard to developing a new fibre-optic link connecting Nepal to Europe and the US via the Hong Kong Data Centre, one of the largest such facilities in Asia. In December 2017, with Nepal formally signed up as a BRI partner, the installation and testing of the initial phase was completed, delivering 4G-connectivity to the Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara, the country's second largest city.
In more recent developments, in May this year Hong Kong-based China Comservice started laying 555km of optical fibres in central Nepal. This will eventually form an integral part of the new national network, which will run throughout the country, connecting Chiyabhanjyang in the eastern Panchthar district to Arughat in western Gorkha district. Other sections of the cable are being laid by a South Korean contractor and a Nepali joint venture company. This phase of the project is scheduled to be completed within the next two years. Overall, some 6.5 million Nepalese are expected to benefit from the initiative, with the total cost said to be in the region of US$171 million.
In a further development, China Comservice has now been tasked with a related project – providing radio connectivity to the 4G network on a national basis. It will be working alongside ZTE, one of China's leading telecom equipment manufacturers, which will develop the core network, while China Comservice will focus on delivering the radio access network.
Initially, the radio access network will connect the Central and mid-Western regions before a second phase sees it extend to the East, West and far-West, ultimately providing 4G connectivity across the whole of the country. With an expected project time of 12 months, the whole of Nepal is set to enjoy high-speed internet access by the end of 2020.
Welcoming the developments as likely to transform his homeland, KP Sharma Oli, the Nepali Prime Minister, said: "There is no doubt that high speed internet connectivity is essential. Without it, Nepal would struggle to fulfil its potential in the modern digital world."
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Kathmandu