Infrastructure & Development / Asia Wide

Asia, connected

by Loh Pei Ying
Length 10 min

The internet today has approximately 3.5 billion users globally—equivalent of about 45 percent of the world’s population. The majority of these users are in Asia, which is no surprise given that China and India have the largest populations in the world.

But Asia is not only simply connected to the internet—it is very well connected. South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore boast some of the fastest average internet speeds in the world. Asia is also leading in 4G with many East and Southeast nations having more than 90 percent coverage. How did a largely developing continent surge ahead?

First, how does the world get internet?

It is arguable that perhaps the most defining characteristic of modern life in the 21st century is the internet. It is indispensable in every aspect of our lives. Despite how dependent societies have become on it, few fully understand the infrastructure that supports the global usage of World Wide Web. Most think of the internet as being “up there” in space, or in the clouds.

In reality, the world’s internet is provided by a complex network of submarine cables laid at the bottom of the ocean.

Submarine cables were introduced in 1850 and within two decades, telecommunications was drastically transformed. Information that used to take months to be transmitted now took hours.

Today, about 99 percent of our international data is transmitted by these cables laid at the bottom of the ocean. They go down to 8,000 meters in depth (that is as high as Mount Everest), and are susceptible to the dangers at sea, including boat anchors, trawlers, natural disasters, and even shark bites. These cables are connected to cell towers when they reach land, which subsequently wirelessly distributes the internet domestically through cellular networks and radio.

Hover over the cable lines for more information!

Information from TeleGeography, https://www.submarinecablemap.com/

Why not satellites?

When telecommunications satellites came into the picture in the 1960s, it seemed like the future was in space. The equitable and dispersed distribution of satellite networks made them ideal for television and broadcasting. Satellites saw a brief boom between the 1960s and 80s, with satellites providing almost ten times the capacity of submarine cables.

Yet, submarine cables still remain the preferred method of telecommunication for various reasons, despite it being expensive and tedious work—not to mention, difficult to repair.

Cables are still preferred because they can be owned by telecommunication carriers, while satellites can merely be leased. However, a large reason for submarine cables’ continued success is due to the introduction of fibre-optic cables. With fibre-optic cables, information is transmitted close to the speed of light, which is much faster than any information to travel through space. Most of the 400 over submarine cables today use fibre-optic technology.

A 3D rendering of a submarine cable being laid onto the ocean floor.
3D rendering of a submarine cable being laid onto the ocean floor.

Wiring Asia

Since its beginnings, telecommunications and submarine cables have largely been a private enterprise, driven by market forces. In the 2000s, there was a dramatic spike in submarine cables connected to Asia. In recent years, large content providers and cloud companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and so on have been investing in submarine cables infrastructure, many of which are aimed at connecting Asia with the rest of the globe.

For the last two decades, many Asian nations have accelerated ahead in economic growth, partly due to a manufacturing boom in textiles, electronics, construction and building materials, among other industries. This has also affected the global submarine cables landscape, with more connections made to populous megacities and financial centres around the world, many of which are in Asia.

Places with a greater reliance and need for connectivity are also likely to have more connections.

This is so that in instances of severed or broken cables, connectivity will not be disrupted. In 2006, an earthquake in the Luzon Strait off the coast of Taiwan—an area where many submarine cables pass under—caused major internet disruptions in the region due to a lack of alternative routes.

An image of how the earthquake in the Luzon Strait off the coast of Taiwan had affected the many underwater submarine cables.
Image from Wu, Weiwei, Bill Moran, Jonathan H. Manton, and Moshe Zukerman. ‘Topology Design of Undersea Cables Considering Survivability Under Major Disasters’. In 2009 International Conference on Advanced Information Networking and Applications Workshops, 1154–59. Bradford, United Kingdom: IEEE, 2009. Accessed, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Effect-of-the-2006-Taiwan-earthquake-on-submarine-cables-5_fig1_224545001

In Asia, countries with the most cable connections are Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, and India. Likewise, these are also the countries with the steadiest and  fastest internet connections.

Data taken from Statista. Accessed 5 August 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/204952/average-internet-connection-speed-by-country/

Staying connected, anytime, anywhere

In many developing countries, income levels do not necessarily affect an individual’s ability to stay connected. Across Asia, mobile cellular subscriptions remain high even though many are still developing nations with relatively lower purchasing power per capita.

Since 2017, mobile devices accounted for 49.7 percent of web page views worldwide. Asian and African countries report the highest mobile internet traffic as a percentage of total web traffic in the world, more than 10 percent above the global average.

Likely due to the affordable costs of smartphones vis-a-vis laptops or computers, Asia and Africa have become mobile-first markets. In fact, the affordability of internet and mobile devices have allowed users to overcome their financial circumstances to get connected. The growth of the mobile market is stunning, and The Economist estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population will be smartphone users by 2020.

It is also therefore no surprise that many Asian countries have close to full 4G—fourth generation of broadband cellular network technology—coverage.

Information taken from GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index. Accessed 5 August 2018, https://www.mobileconnectivityindex.com/.

Asia is hungry for mobile communication. It lives off it. A survey done globally over eight countries in 2012 by TIMES with Qualcomm showed that India, China, and South Korea rated higher than all the other countries in use of mobile in every single category, from playing games to checking the weather, or just listening to music.

A data visualisation breaking down the common usages of mobile phone in China, India, and South Korea, compared to the U.S. and U.K.
Data taken from TIMES. Accessed 20 September 2018, http://content.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,2122187,00.html

Uneven landscape

There is a dark side to all this progress.

While the internet appears to be geographically democratic, in reality it is a new layer of infrastructure that follows a hierarchy of global cities. Despite Asia’s lead in the digital landscape, good internet connection is not evenly distributed on the continent and it remains largely an urban phenomenon. In East and North East Asia, fixed broadband access can get as high as 74 percent, yet some places in Asia are at less than 10 percent. The internet industry in Asia is also largely dominated by companies from a few countries, namely China, Japan, India, and South Korea. That said, companies from other parts of Asia, like Grab (Malaysia), Go-Jek (Indonesia), Souq (UAE), and Careem (UAE), are quickly catching up.

Landlocked countries are also at a disadvantage when it comes to internet connectivity, and rely on neighbouring countries or satellite technology (which is very expensive). For instance, Laos has connectivity with all its neighbours—which is rare for a landlocked country—through two initiatives, the China-Southeast Asia Cable and the GMS Information Highway Project. Despite that, the country still went ahead and launched its first satellite in 2015 to achieve sovereign connectivity. In some instances, the unequal internet infrastructure creates an internet divide and arguably perpetuates inequality, as seen in Indonesia between urban vs. rural, and remote island vs. mainland island areas.

While China and India have the highest number of internet users, their internet connections are not among the best in the world. China’s internet traffic has to go through three main gateways—Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Often touted as the ‘Great Firewall of China’, this is done intentionally for a strict screening and filtering of content, but it slows down traffic significantly. India’s internet speed in 2016 was only at 2.8 Mbps, nearly 13 times slower than South Korea.

Beyond numbers, the internet boom in Asia has seen unexpected outcomes. Asia—more so than any other continent—deals with issues like pollution, health, corruption, and social injustice—all of which are common in places with rapid economic growth and social development. The rise of giant social applications like WeChat and WhatsApp have created room for civic and political engagement, as individuals are now able to organise themselves and disseminate information privately for action. It has allowed the growth of whole communities. In many ways, mobile media has amplified democracy, with the best examples in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in 2014 which was organised entirely on the web, and the 2012 Arab Spring that started on Facebook. In some instances, the internet can be dangerous, like in Myanmar where Facebook has been used to spread hate speech and incite violence against the Rohingya.

 

What’s next?

That said, Asia’s potential for growth is still staggering. Southeast Asia’s internet economy is projected to grow from US$50 billion today to US$200 billion by 2025. As of 2016, only 53 percent of China’s and 30 percent of India’s population are internet users, and yet they are already the two largest online markets in the world. Smart devices and teleservices will only become increasingly cheaper, and with rising incomes, billions more in Asia will become internet users in the next few years. Even with only half its population connected to the web, China’s tech companies, such as QQ Mobile, WeChat, Tencent, Taobao, Alibaba, are among the best performing in the world and are dominating the e-commerce scene.

As the rest of Asia comes online, it is difficult to fathom what will happen. Already, Asia is the leading market in new disruptive technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain, which will fundamentally change our financial systems and our interactions with the material around us. How will this change the fabric of Asian societies? Will it empower individuals to drive change? Will we become beholden to the internet a la Black Mirror? There are no answers for now, and we can only wait and see.