If you have recently been frustrated by buffering while watching an HD video-on-demand stream, then hold that thought. For those in the less developed parts of the world, watching HD video at all, is, quite literally, something of a pipe dream. In these countries, for those fortunate enough to be able to move past existential concerns such as food and housing, internet connectivity and bandwidth is still a mere fraction of what those in developed countries are used to. It’s a pain point of which Dileep Agrawal, chief executive of Nepalese ISP WorldLink, and a speaker at the Broadband ip&TV Asia conference in May, is only too aware.
WorldLink has been serving Nepal with internet connectivity since 1995 and owns 90 per cent of the infrastructure that it uses to deliver services. This is a network consisting of Ethernet and optical fibre to both consumers and enterprise customers. ADSL however, if off the table, as the incumbent Nepal Telecom has not agreed to unbundle its network for others to use, and as such dominates that market.
Nevertheless, as of February 2012, WorldLink has a total of 22,000 customers and in addition to providing basic internet access offers VoIP, web hosting, network integration and support services which Agrawal sees as being all part and parcel of being a modern data services company. “Nowadays, it’s not just providing simple internet but providing value added,” he says. “Providing just simple internet services is a difficult job in any economy now.”
The major challenge facing WorldLink is dealing with the high prices it has to pay for backbone internet access compared to developed nations and the fact that it is land-locked that ensures that prices remain very high. As a result its customers on average pay for a relatively lowly sounding 384Kbps service. In practice WorldLink delivers a one megabit connection, consisting of 512kbs of international bandwidth and 512Kbps of local bandwidth. Agrawal admits this isn’t fantastic compared to more developed economies. “Penetration is traditionally lower [here] and the speeds are terrible,” he admits frankly.
The customer experience is boosted at least by the fact that Google has installed local caches in the country. It’s not purely for altruistic reasons though as Agrawal is quick to explain. “It’s for YouTube. [Google] wants YouTube to stream better. Its gives a better experience to get more people watching. They want advertising .” Still, he’s not complaining. “It’s nice that they have put servers in our country as our customers don’t complain to us that there’s too much buffering.”
But what about content located in other parts of the world? “Getting higher speeds [for customers] directly impacts us as we need to buy more upstream bandwidth to the internet. That’s the only limitation. And that upstream bandwidth is still not at the price levels that people buy at in Europe, America, or Singapore; any places where bandwidth is available in plenty. In major areas it would be US$5; we pay US$100.”
Worldlink buys most of its international connectivity from Indian operators Airtel and at present there’s a lack of competition to bring prices down. “It varies because there aren’t many operators selling bandwidth to Nepal, so the competition there is less,” Agrawal explains.
“We have connectivity to China but it’s not too reliable, and it’s not operational yet. So we have very few choices of who we can buy from on the Indian side, because there are very few people that have built their network up to the border of our country.”
There’s no immediate technical solution to this situation, but time and political stability will eventually enable a more competitive market to spring up. “It’s down to the political will on our side to negotiate with the government of China. We have not tried, as politically our country has not been that stable in the last few years.”
However, it’s clear that progress is being made. Where Nepal was paying US$300 per meg a few years ago, it’s now at US$110 and Agrawal believes that in five years it will be down to just US$5-S10, which is level at which developed countries would expect to pay now.
He’s keen to see that future pay dividends both for his company and for the prosperity of his country. “We still haven’t been able to experience the transformational benefits that have occurred in more developed economies where internet penetration is higher and the bandwidth higher”. Things are changing though, as those who are able to afford it, and those who live in coverage areas are turned on to the benefits of connectivity.
“I’ve been in the industry for 15 years now and initially it was just mail that people used. We could see people who did international business had a competitive edge and were able to close more deals. With the advent of the internet it’s given them a new edge in terms of being able to advertise and promote themselves globally. And I’m pretty sure that with more bandwidth people will be able to access internet resources in a much better way. And once you have access that there’s a lot of educational content that you’ll be able to access and society will benefit from that.”
With ADSL blocked off by the incumbent, WorldLink has three methods of connecting up its customers, Ethernet, fibre and fixed wireless and Agrawal explains the technical reasons behind ow it makes the choice of what to roll out.
“The Ethernet service for residential customers is theoretically capable of delivering 100Mbps in the last mile, but the network is not reliable enough to deliver an enterprise grade service. We pull fibre to the node, and from there, we pull outdoor (shielded) CAT5e cable on utility poles with outdoor switches at every 100 meters. The switches are cascaded in series and then further branch out to extend the network into streets and lanes. A customer is connected to one of these switches using outdoor CAT5e cable. The switches are powered using DC voltage passed through the CAT5e cable. [However], we experience periodic cable cuts or switch and power failures, resulting in service outage.
“For enterprise customers, we pull optical fibre cable from the node to their premises. This is more reliable as it is not dependent on any intermediate switches or power failure. Fibre media is more reliable as well.”
WorldLink is inevitably keen to explore any means it can to reach its potential customers, and as such, has two fixed wireless technologies in its portfolio. The Motorola Canopy for its Enterprise customers, and a lower cost device from Ubiquity Networks for home users. Neither are based on WiMAX or LTE. “Both are proprietary,” Agrawal says. “We would love to roll out WiMAX but the spectrum for that is not available.”
With the proximity to India spectrum this is a situation that’s not likely to change anytime soon due to the recent political scandals round telecoms licenses. “The stumbling blocks are surrounding India today is that people are scared of spectrum. It’s a dirty work after what happened in India. Politicians are very scared of taking any decisions on spectrum issues for fear that it might backfire on them in the future.”
This leaves WorldLink to focus on rolling out its existing technologies to other areas outside the main areas of Katmandu. “We are moving our focus to underserved , semi-rural markets where we can get some customers who are happy with the fixed wireless that we provide. Katmandu is 60 per cent of the market and rather than just focus on it we’re trying to shift outside.”
With so many challenges, Agrawal is keen to come to attend the Broadband Asia conference to meet and talk with others to explore ways to innovate out of the constrictions it faces to improve its service and grow its customer base. “I’m looking forward to understanding what the feelings around Asia for broadband growth. What works; what doesn’t work? What business models are coming in? TD-LTE is coming into the picture and we’d like to try and meet different ISPs and operators that we can collaborate with.”
Armed with first-hand knowledge of how things are going in other areas of the world, Agrawal is confident that he’ll be able to improve things for WorldLink and its customers. “It’s a very exciting time but when things don’t happen fast enough it can get frustrating.”