On 10 January 2018, China Telecom activated a long-awaited terrestrial link to the landlocked country of Nepal. The new fiber optic connection, which traverses the Himalayan mountain range, alters a significant aspect of Nepal's exclusive dependency on India, shifting the balance of power (at least for international connectivity) in favor of Kathmandu.
Following a number of brief trials since mid-November, Nepal Telecom fully activated Internet transit from China Telecom at 08:28 UTC on 10 January 2018, as depicted below.
In our 2015 coverage of the earthquake that devastated Nepal, I wrote:
"Nepal, as well as Bhutan, are both South Asian landlocked countries wedged between India and China that are dependent on India for a number of services including telecommunications. As a result, each country has been courting Chinese engagement that would provide a redundant source of Internet connectivity."
In December 2016, executives Ou Yan of China Telecom Global (CTG) and Lochan Lal Amatya of Nepal Telecom (pictured below) signed an agreement to route IP service through a new terrestrial cable running between Jilong county in China and Rasuwa district in Nepal.
Last week, the fiber link to China finally came to life and established Nepal's first redundant source of international transit. An operational fiber optic circuit through China will provide Nepal several distinct benefits.
First, it provides resiliency if the links to India were ever to go down, whether due to earthquake, fiber cut, or any other catastrophic technical failure. Second, it provides Nepal with additional bandwidth, although it isn't clear that lack of bandwidth has been limiting the country's Internet development. Finally, with a second source of international transit, Nepal is in a better position to negotiate terms of service and pricing than when it was entirely captive to India's carriers.
Changes in Performance
Looking at the performance implications for Nepal Telecom, we can see that traffic from Far East locations will generally speed up along the Hong Kong to Nepal link, while connections from some Western European countries may experience a slowdown.
The graphic below plots latencies from our measurement servers in Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong to Nepal Telecom. In each case, the latencies decreased when the new China Telecom service was activated on 10 January.
Surprisingly, latencies from Zurich increase (plot below).
In this example, since the latencies via Bharti Airtel increase at the time of the transit activation, we can surmise that this may be due to a change in the unobservable return path of these round-trip measurements. The new return path is most likely egressing via China Telecom, since the forward path remains unchanged.
Nonetheless, a materially new traffic pattern through China has emerged for Nepal.
The upside of this development for Nepal is clear: cheaper and more resilient international Internet bandwidth. But China has something to gain as well.
Infrastructure investment in countries along China's traditional trade routes is central to its One Belt One Road foreign policy agenda. By making investments in neighboring countries (like a fiber optic cable to Nepal), China hopes to reap benefits in trade as well as achieve political and military influence.
And while many in the United States are focused on the competition between the US and China for regional influence, China and India are locked in a battle for influence in South Asia. China has made a significant move by connecting its Internet directly to Nepal.
While similarly situated Bhutan would also benefit from a direct Internet connection to its northern neighbor, recent rising tensions between the world's two most populous nations over tiny Bhutan make this technical advancement unlikely for now. Good thing Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicator doesn't measure Internet resilience. At least, not yet.