Logistics article(s)
December 1, 2014
fibre optics
Policymakers have agreed to work towards amending the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway intergovernmental agreements to add fibre optic cables.

In a move with long-term implications for cargo and its movement, policymakers across Asia-Pacific have agreed to work towards amending the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway intergovernmental agreements to encourage co-deployment of ICT and transport infrastructure.

This is a simple, but at the same time potent, move: add the cables for the necessary for the internet to the Asian Highway (AH) and the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR).

“Where they are maintaining and building (roads and railways that are part of either the AH or the TAR) we would lay out the fibre or ducts to subsequently lay out the fibre,” Remi Lang, economic affairs officer of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), told Asia Cargo News.

It is not that either of these Asia-spanning infrastructures are going to be dug up. There is going to be no disruption at all, aside from possible modifications of the routes in some places.

Future plans are that the road and railways will also carry the fibre optic capable necessary to support the internet and its spread. It is already happening with roads in South Korea, said Lang, who added that China has also started to co-deploy.

It is from this that two big implications for cargo flow.

One is its effect on trade volumes the other is its impact on how trade is done.

“We believe that the likely effect on trade will be big,” Shamika Sirimanne, director of UNESCAP’s Information and Communications Technology Division, told Asia Cargo News.

The impact has not yet been quantified or timelined, but it is coming. Broadband penetration, as Sirimanne pointed out, triggers GDP growth.

Part of this is the spread of the internet on e-commerce. Currently, less than 15% of the population in developing Asia and the Pacific has access to high-speed internet; the situation is even worse in the least-developed and in landlocked countries, where inexpensive and reliable internet access is almost non-existent.

The other impact will be on trade, with e-commerce being more successful because of widespread fibre optic cables. “You cannot have e-commerce without the e,” Sirimanne said, pointing in particular to countries like Mongolia and regions like the Pacific islands, where trade positions would “hugely improve.” 

What UNESCAP is planning is the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) initiative, which aims to connect each country’s backbone networks and integrating them into a cohesive land- and sea-based fibre infrastructure. This would increase international bandwidth for developing countries throughout the region.

Asia-Pacific countries are supportive and have already agreed to set up a working group to develop principles and norms for the regional ICT network. They also agreed to develop a

master plan covering both policy and technical aspects of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway.

What they are building on is the 143,000 km of the Asian Highway and another 117,000 km of Trans-Asian Railway networks, which UNESCAP says offer an unmatched opportunity for co-habitation of ICT and transport networks. All that is needed is a simple revision of the treaties governing the TAR and the AH.

UNESCAP holds up benefits such as a cost savings of up to 80% from a ‘dig once – use many times’ approach, as well as expansion and diversification of the revenues generated by infrastructure construction, but it is also aware of possible problems, the biggest of which is cost.

Fibre optic materials and conduits are negligible in terms of cost, but the challenge is the cost of labour to do the excavation on the older stretches of road and rail. With the newer sections, it is just a matter of laying cable or redesigning sections to carry fibre optic cable in the future.

“Adding fibre does not cost much. What costs is if you have to re-dig,” Sirimanne said.

Another cost is securing rights of way, especially across borders, which is a priority for UNESCAP. “This cross-border connection is what we want to work on,” she added.


By Michael Mackey

Southeast Asia Correspondent | Bangkok

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