The Digital Silk Way will have a vast reach throughout Europe and Asia once the fiber-optic connections laid across the bottom of the Caspian Sea are in place.
NEQSOL Holding of Azerbaijan promotes the Digital Silk Way, a long-discussed project to create a digital corridor connecting Asia and Europe via Azerbaijan and Georgia and offering alternative and additional internet connectivity for a large number of countries.
AzerTelecom, the provider of Azerbaijan’s internet connection, is in charge of carrying out the project. The 380–400 km long northern segment of the Trans-Caspian fiber-optic cable will be installed due to a collaboration between AzerTelecom, TransTeleCom, and KazTransCom in Kazakhstan. The project’s foundation is provided by an inter-state agreement.
The Caspian Sea has recently been the topic of much discussion in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, but far older plans—concerning the shipment of internet traffic across the inland body of water—now also seem to be progressing.
It was revealed at the end of October that fiber-optic communication lines (FOCLs) connecting Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan would begin construction in 2023 at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
The Digital Silk Way is anticipated to help up to 1.8 billion people once it is completely operational, mostly in Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. The Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan lines will be used by the Caspian seabed FOCLs.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan inked a contract in November 2019 for the 300 km southern line. It will connect Siyazan in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and be a key component of the Digital Silk Way, which would connect Frankfurt in Germany and Mumbai in India via Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
According to Bagdat Musin, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry, since the availability of other routes plays a significant role in ensuring that people of their countries have guaranteed access to the internet, all of the Central Asian countries have an interest in the expeditious implementation of this project.
Difficulties emerged for Digital Silk Way ambitions, when in 2018 Azerbaijan’s NEQSOL decided to acquire Georgian telecom company Caucasus Online, which owns a critical Black Sea cable link. However, in an attempt to undo NEQSOL’s purchase of 49% of Caucasus Online last year, Georgia’s communications market regulator, GNCC, asserted that prior approval for the transaction had not been sought.
In response, NEQSOL stated that Georgia’s prohibition on its acquisition of Caucasus Online will thwart plans to establish the new digital corridor. The network would be entirely dependent on the Black Sea subsea link provided by Caucasus Online. Unresolved issues are still present.
The Organization of Turkic States has also raised awareness of the Digital Silk Way project (OTS). On October 25, an OTS working group meeting was conducted to discuss the project’s prospective member state participation.
Stuart Evers, chairman of AzerTelecom International, has emphasized that Digital Silk Way is a private initiative and system that is not “based on the government” nor related to major infrastructure initiatives like China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
According to what he said in an interview with the Capacity newsletter, it will be possible for everyone to use the system, and it won’t matter what carriers they use. They want to open up the area as one of their goals. A core direct digital corridor connecting Europe and Asia is greatly desired because the current ones are geographically way longer.
He further added that the initiative would only concentrate on terrestrial fiber and use subsea to establish a direct link. As a result of the rising demand and connection it would offer, this system has advantages for infrastructure like satellite base stations.
“We believe that in light of the increase in internet consumption all over the world, this large-scale digital project will contribute to the development of the telecommunications industry in the region, as well as the expansion of business between countries and companies,” said Evers.
The project fits into AzerTelecom’s larger goals as well. The telecom is attempting to make Azerbaijan into a regional digital hub that will facilitate Eurasian data transit as part of its Azerbaijan Digital Hub program. The plan is expected to strengthen the Azerbaijani economy by luring investments into non-oil sectors and expanding capabilities in cybersecurity and e-services.