High prices, technological limitations and unreliable connectivity threaten to slow the explosive growth of Nepal’s internet market during the COVID-19 lockdown even though everything from recreation to education and employment have gone online.
Latest figures from the Nepal Network Operators’ Group (NNOG) show a 35% increase in internet consumption in the past nearly four months of lockdown. In comparison, pre-lockdown growth of the internet market stood at just 23% per year, according the Group’s CEO Samit Jana Thing.
“While pre-lockdown internet consumption stood at 1486 gigabytes per second, post-lockdown levels reach as high as 2100 gigabytes per second,” says Thing, “We have seen a sharp rise in online entertainment with Netflix, TikTok, online ludo and other virtual pastimes.”
Traditional giants Facebook, Google and Amazon have also clocked increased hours on their social media, virtual meeting and e-commerce platforms. Google and Facebook alone dominate 82% of all internet traffic in Nepal. Most of the data went through mobile phones and cable internet, with only 11% on wifi.
Multiple price hikes, including a 13% Telecommunications Service Charge on top of 13% VAT and 4% royalty fees, have made internet in Nepal relatively expensive. Nepal also ‘imports’ most of its internet bandwidth through Indian companies such as Tata Communications and Airtel, and is therefore affected by price swings there.
This dependence on fibre optic cable corridors to India often leave Nepal’s internet connections vulnerable to network failures, says the Director of Nepal Telecommunications Authority Bijay Kumar Roy. Most of Nepal’s internet comes through cables gateways at the Bhairawa, Duhabi, Tanakpur and Dhalkebar borders with India.
Nepal’s attempt to diversify its internet connectivity has been stymied by even higher prices of bandwidth from China. Despite and agreement with China Telecom Global for cyber connectivity, only a few domestic Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are getting their cyber connections through the Rasuwa border from China where there is also the problem of unreliability because of the terrain and extreme weather on the Tibetan Plateau. Work is ongoing to open another internet gateway through the Kodari border.
The NTA says that although mobile phone have now reached full saturation, only 72% of the population uses the internet regularly, up from only 7% ten years ago. But most complaints from customers are about slow internet from ISPs.
The pattern of internet use has also changed during the lockdown. Previously, people going online peaked in the evenings. But in the past four months, there is constantly heavy traffic as Nepal has seen an explosive growth in YouTube use – up from virtually zero in 2018 to 34% last year, and then almost doubling to 60% this year.
The bandwidth often is too narrow to support this kind of traffic in Nepal’s international gateway and local networks. The crossborder connections are through underground fibre optic cable that connect ISPs to India’s Airtel and Tata.
Within Nepal, local caches for YouTube and Google use artificial intelligence to ‘pre-fetch’ popular content into their own servers so they do not always have to use international connections to source the material. One-third of all downloaded content during the lockdown was from Google, with YouTube being the most popular.