New data connection between China and Nepal forms backbone of BRI's information-centred high-speed network.
Faster, more reliable and cheaper internet access is seen as the first tangible sign of the enhanced co-operation between China and Nepal, envisaged as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework. The upgrade took place last month when China Telecom Global, a subsidiary of China Telecom, the Beijing-headquartered, state-owned telecoms giant, partnered with Telecom Nepal to offer an alternative to the country's existing India-channelled internet connection.
This new terrestrial internet gateway forms part of a major BRI infrastructure project that will see Nepal connected to Europe and the Americas via China. For its part, China Telecom has branded the development as a core component of the "BRI's information-centred high-speed link".
The new fibre-optic link is connected to the landlocked Himalayan country via the Kerung-Rasuwa border crossing and has been channelled through the Hong Kong Data Centre, one of the largest international data centres in Asia. Located in the Sai Kung district of the New Territories, this HK$5 billion (US$640 million), 71,000 sq m facility came online in the December of last year. Jointly operated by China Telecom Global, Daily-Tech, a Beijing-based internet infrastructure specialist, and Global Switch, a Hong Kong-based data-centre developer, this new facility is said to be both a large-scale data carrier and a regional technology hub.
The provision of China-Nepal cross-border internet connectivity was first mooted in 2013, but was significantly delayed by the 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal, leaving 9,000 people dead and rendering much of the proposed data access route inaccessible. Despite this, a formal agreement on the project was struck in Hong Kong in 2016, with the installation and testing phase completed in December 2017.
Overall, enhancing the speed, reliability and cost-effectiveness of Nepal's internet access has been seen as a priority, given the surge in demand from both individual users and the business sector. Of the country's 26.5 million people, 62.94% had internet access as of October 2017, up from 35.7% in October 2014, according to figures provided by the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA).
Impressively, Nepal's online population has more than doubled since 2010, when less than 30% of Nepalis enjoyed internet access. As a sign of the country's appetite for digital communication, in the 12 months to October 2017, some 2.25 million new Nepali users were connected to the internet – approximately 250 every hour.
As has been the case elsewhere in developing Asia, the majority of Nepal's internet users go online via their mobile phones, with such usage given a further boost by the roll-out of 4G services that began last year. Summarising the country's changing digital profile, the NTA's 2017 annual report concluded: "The growth in internet penetration has been facilitated by increasing mobile connectivity across the country and, in particular, by the availability of browsers and data connections on even relatively inexpensive phones."
Although landlocked, Nepal is proving to be a coveted strategic location, with both China and India seeing it as playing a pivotal role in realising their wider commercial aspirations across South Asia. In a clear sign of its intentions to secure greater collaboration with the country, China accounted for about 58% of all of Nepal's foreign direct investment pledges in the first half of the country's current fiscal year. Clearly keen to capitalise on this interest from two of Asia's superpowers, Nepal has introduced a number of new legislative measures designed to facilitate such investment, including the Industrial Enterprises Act, the Special Economic Zone Act and the Foreign Investment Policy.
As of December last year, Nepal's Ministry of Finance was said to be considering 12 further BRI-related development proposals. These include a number of major road, rail, hydropower, transmission line and communication projects, as well as plans for a spectacular railway link connecting Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, with Tibet.
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Kathmandu