In Central Asia and the South Caucasus there has been talk of moving more cargo and oil across the Caspian Sea of late, but far older plans – involving transporting internet traffic across the inland waters – now appear to be moving forward as well.
The Digital Silk Way is a long-discussed project to create a digital corridor running between Asia and Europe via Azerbaijan and Georgia, offering alternative and additional internet access to a large number of countries.
In late October, it was announced that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan will begin construction of fiber optic communications lines (FOCLs) along the bottom of the Caspian Sea in 2023, connecting the two countries.
When fully deployed, the Digital Silk Way is expected to benefit up to 1.8 billion people residing in Central and South Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Caspian Seabed FOCLs will operate on two routes, namely Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan.
The Digital Silk Way project was promoted by Azerbaijani NEQSOL Holding. Implementation is the responsibility of AzerTelecom, an operator that connects Azerbaijan to the global Internet network. A partnership between AzerTelecom and Kazakhstan’s TransTeleCom and KazTransCom will lay the 380-400 km northern section of the Trans-Caspian fiber optic cable. An intergovernmental agreement helps underpin the project.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan signed an agreement on the 300 km southern route in November 2019. It is intended to connect Siyazan in Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and be part of the main backbone of the Digital Silk Road connecting Frankfurt, Germany and Mumbai. India, via Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“All countries of Central Asia are interested in the rapid implementation of this project, since the availability of alternative routes plays a huge role in providing guaranteed access to the Internet for residents of our countries,” said Bagdat Musin, Minister of Digitization in Kazakhstan Development, Innovation and Development Aerospace Industry.
Difficulties arose for Digital Silk Way’s ambitions when Azerbaijan’s NEQSOL decided in 2018 to acquire Georgian telecommunications company Caucasus Online, which owns a key Black Sea cable link. However, Georgia’s communications market regulator, GNCC, last year moved to reverse NEQSOL’s acquisition of 49% of Caucasus Online, claiming that prior approval for the move was not requested.
NEQSOL replied that Georgia’s ban on buying Caucasus Online would disrupt plans to create the new digital corridor. Caucasus Online’s Black Sea underwater link would be an integral part of the network. Open issues remain unresolved.
The Digital Silk Way project has also come under the spotlight of the Organization of Turkish States (OTS). During an OTS working group meeting on 25 October, the potential involvement of Member States in the project was assessed.
Stuart Evers, chairman of AzerTelecom International, has emphasized that Digital Silk Way is a private company and system and is “non-government based” and not linked to infrastructure projects like China’s massive “Belt and Road” initiative.
“The system will be carrier neutral and made available to anyone who wants to use it. One of our ambitions is to open up the region. There is a huge demand for a core direct digital corridor between Europe and Asia as the existing ones are geographically much longer,” Evers said in an interview with the Capacity newsletter.
“The plan is for the project to focus solely on terrestrial fiber and undersea cables to create a direct connection. Due to the ever-increasing demand and the connectivity it will provide, this system will offer benefits to infrastructures such as satellite base stations,” he was further quoted as saying.
“We believe that this digital mega-project will contribute to the development of the telecommunications industry in the region as well as the expansion of business between countries and companies as Internet consumption increases around the world,” he added.
The project is also part of AzerTelecom’s broader plans. Under the company’s Azerbaijan Digital Hub program, the telecom company is working to transform Azerbaijan into a regional digital hub that will facilitate Eurasian data transmission. The initiative aims to boost Azerbaijan’s economy by attracting investment in non-oil sectors and increasing capacity in e-services and cybersecurity.