22-28 November 2013 #682

Expanding the net

For greater connectivity and a larger market, the Nepali government needs to treat internet service providers as equal players
Ayesha Shakya

With digital technology increasingly becoming an indispensable part of our daily lives, the need for widespread, reliable internet is clearly evident.

Advancements in communications technology are now making it easier and less expensive to connect to the web, but several slip-ups by the Nepal Telecommunications Authority have left Nepal’s private ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in the lurch. For greater connectivity and a larger market, the Nepali government needs to treat internet service providers as equal players.

Collectively, private ISPs cover a huge array of services, ranging from cable internet, wireless broadband internet, 3G, VSAT, ADSL, and fibre optics. However, the number of ISPs that have entered the local market in the past couple of years have led to rate undercutting left and right: “The competition is very stiff, but unfortunately most ISPs are only focusing on price and not the quality of service and customer support,” says Pratik Sharma, marketing coordinator of Mercantile Communications. “Such unhealthy competition is not good in the long-term.”

While none of the companies have a monopoly on an individual service, Nepal Telecom has a clear advantage. Besides being a government-owned public sector company with over 30 years of experience, NT also has the benefit of being the only ISP providing WiMAX broadband, the fastest internet service currently available in Nepal. Other ISPs are riled by this apparent favouritism.

“All companies were supposed to obtain the permit for WiMAX at the same time, but Nepal Telecom was the first to get it,” explains Binay Bohra, head of the Internet Service Providers Association of Nepal (ISPAN). “This creates a non-level playing field in the market. The scenario sums up the government’s attitude towards the private sector in general.”

Chief public relation officer of Worldlink, Pavan Singh Shakya, expresses his own frustration at not being able to offer WiMAX to his customers. “It has been two years since we have been begging the Ministry of Information and Communications for a WiMAX permit, but the regulator isn’t answering any of our requests.”

ISPs say the sluggish pace at which the state is moving ahead with infrastructure development is hindering the growth of new markets. The regulatory body, Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA), is endowed with the Rural Telecom Development Fund worth Rs 6-7 billion to upgrade facilities and standardise practices within the telecom industry. Despite the enormous budget, the organisation has done very little to promote internet within the country.

“The funds are piling up, but not a single thing has been done in terms of building infrastructure,” says ISPAN’s Bohra. “The cost is too high for private companies to build their own network or infrastructure. The organisation needs to start doing a better job so that ISPs can expand into rural areas.”

Like many, Bohra thinks the problem lies in internal issues at the NTA. The controversy surrounding the ousting of former chairman Digambhar Jha due to a lack of qualification has left the regulatory body without a working chairman. As a result, many ISPs have to fend for themselves in the market. Says Bohra: “Providing fast, reliable internet services is not a priority for the government. The various officials are busy bickering amongst themselves. Unless there’s a leader to direct, we can’t go to NTA with our issues.”

Although Kailash Neupane, spokesperson for NTA, agrees that many issues need to be resolved internally, he remains optimistic about what lies ahead. “While certain pilot projects have been implemented in rural areas, we plan to continue developing optical fibre in each district headquarters and providing infrastructure to the various VDCs,” he says.

There is no dearth of energy and enthusiasm within the ISP community. All they need now to push Nepal into the connectivity stratosphere is the backing of a technology-friendly government.

See also:

Surfing under surveillance, RUBEENA MAHATO

“We are a soft target”

Crackdown riles ISPs, KUNDA DIXIT

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