The importance of network operators in Nepal during COVID-19

By on 20 Apr 2021

Category: Community

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Nepal is listed on the United Nations LLDC list, has a population of 29 million, and is sandwiched between two giant neighbours: India on three sides, and China to the north. In the early days of the Internet, bandwidth was possible only through very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT). It was expensive but it was consistent and free from third-party regulation.

Several ISPs offered very limited services before cross-border fibre was introduced in Nepal from India in 2008. VSAT had a capacity in the 100s of Mbps but since cross-border fibre introduction, Nepal’s total international bandwidth stands at around 800 Gbps+.

Being landlocked, Internet connectivity is dependent on neighbouring economies. Currently, there are five major transit points: India holds three Internet transborder permits and China has two. China’s international transits are in Rasuwa and Tatopani. Both remote points suffer from low capacity and are frequently broken during winter due to landslides and floods.

Internet use is rapidly growing in Nepal, so this infrastructure is critical.

COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has led to severe socio-economic disruption in Nepal, as in most other economies; the health, banking, education, and e-commerce sectors had to adapt their businesses.

The Internet became a lifeline for the continuation of business and social activities, and will remain so in a post-pandemic world.

This led to a massive increase in demand. At the height of the pandemic, between March and November 2020, Nepal added a reported two million new Internet subscribers.

This presented issues and challenges to Nepal’s network operators, with bandwidth struggling to keep up with heightened demand.

Connectivity for all is a must

Online health, education, and remote working possibilities have brought a semblance of normality to uncertain times. Telehealth solutions now offload some activities from healthcare systems, enabling health workers to focus on saving lives. Videoconferencing and social networks help us stay in touch with our families and friends. Online news, other media, and online games keep us informed and entertained while passing time at home, as shown in Table 1.

ContentPercentage of total
Google35%
Facebook18%
Tiktok7%
Netflix2%
Microsoft2%
Amazon1%
Pubg3%
Others32%

Table 1 — The typical distribution of international content in Nepal.

But is affordable and meaningful connectivity available for all?

Internet affordability (devices and access) remains a problem for almost 13% of people worldwide who live below the international poverty line. Nepal is overrepresented in these figures, with 18.7% of the Nepalese population currently living under the poverty line.

As the Internet plays an increasingly crucial role during the pandemic, the importance of network operator services has expanded.

The importance of network operators

The consumption of Internet bandwidth increased sharply during the pandemic in Nepal, even during traditional off-peak hours. Not only has the demand for network continuity increased, but network operators also faced challenges relating to cybersecurity, the high cost of infrastructure, and demand for local content. These challenges continue.

For Nepalese network operators, this crisis has proved an opportunity to serve their communities and simultaneously build infrastructure, trust, and goodwill in at least five different ways:

  • Providing business-critical connectivity and resiliency
  • Facilitating work from home arrangements
  • Regularly monitoring network connectivity and maintaining cybersecurity
  • Internet bandwidth segregation as per requirements
  • Keeping individuals and societies connected and informed, with access to medical, financial (digital banking), commercial, and other essential services during mandated social isolation

Network operators’ work enables mass messaging with public health updates from local or national governments that will ensure people are following public safety guidelines. The ability to reach people on a wide and individual basis is critical to ensure accurate information reaches the public.

While social distancing has, unfortunately, become a necessary part of life, remaining socially connected through virtual means is a critical requirement for our safety, sanity, and our best attempts to keep the global economy moving.

While it is not certain when we will be able to resume normal lives, it is certain that network operators will continue to provide critical services that enables social connectivity in a physical distancing world. When we do return to normal lives, I hope we continue to recognize the important work of network operators.

Bikram is Head of Digital Banking of the Sanima Bank Ltd, President of Nepal Internet Foundation in Nepal and the APNIC Cooperation SIG Co-Chair.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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