Big data, cloud computing poised to take off in Tibet as region looks to connect with South Asia

By Zhang Hongpei in Lhasa Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/20 17:56:05

Workers build Ningsuan's big data center in Lhasa on March 8. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Inset: A view of the operations center of Ningsuan on March 8 Photos: Li Hao/GT

Editor's Note:

The remote and mountainous Tibet Autonomous Region in Southwest China has witnessed rapid improvement in its communications infrastructure, which is not restricted to making phone calls but also brings business opportunities related to e-commerce, big data and cloud computing. The Global Times traveled to Tibet to interview local people involved in communications and digital construction, which is helping to eliminate the digital divide with the rest of the country. This is the second of a two-part story.

As China steps up efforts to develop its digital transformation in a bid to empower the real economy, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region is not lagging behind. Internet services such as online food ordering and delivery, as well as ride-hailing, have taken root on the high-altitude plateau in the last few years.

A female white-collar worker surnamed Jiao has been working in Lhasa, the region's capital, for seven years since she graduated. 

She told the Global Times that compared with her home region, the more economically developed East China's Jiangsu Province, the popularity of mobile digital payment via WeChat and Alipay, online food delivery and ride-hailing services in Tibet came a little late - around 2016 to 2017, but the user experience is still good.

"Even in a small shop along the roads of Lhasa you can find a QR code for customers to scan and pay," said Jiao.

Tibet's relatively disadvantageous infrastructure in such areas as transportation does not pose obstacles for its transformation to a digital economy, said Yang Minghong, a professor at Sichuan University.

"Compared with the higher level of difficulty in transportation infrastructure such as railway construction in the extreme natural conditions of Tibet, information infrastructure tends to have lower costs and lower technological standards," Yang told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Based on the rapid growth of GDP, a golden opportunity has come to develop its digital economy centered on big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

In 2018, Tibet's GDP reached 140 billion yuan ($20.86 billion), up 10 percent year-on-year. That was well above the national rate of 6.6 percent, the regional government's work report said in January.

It was the only region that achieved double-digit growth last year, and it was also the 26th consecutive year of double-digit growth in Tibet.

Meanwhile, Tibet's consumption ability is continuously increasing, providing support for the digital economy's takeoff, said Bianba Lamu, deputy head of the South Asia Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences.

Tibet ranked ninth in terms of consumption per capita in 2018, according to the China digital economy development report released by tech giant Alibaba in January.

"It's a crucial moment for Tibet to strengthen its digital economy to realize high-quality economic development and gain an upper hand for the future, and alongside this process, issues such as public services, education and hygiene can be tackled," Bianba told the Global Times.

Tibet gained 2.02 billion yuan from its digital industry in 2018, up 25.1 percent year-on-year. The number of enterprises in the digital industry exceeded 30,000 in the region, according to the government work report delivered in January.

The report said that a direct investment of 5.4 billion yuan was made in the information industry in the region in 2018. The region aims to achieve over 6.5 billion yuan of consumption in the information industry and a 30 percent growth in the digital industry in 2019.

Huge potential to tap

Located in the Liuwu New Area in Lhasa, a big data center with a planned area of 400,000 square meters is under construction by a private high-tech firm named Ningsuan Technologies. 

Construction started in early 2017 with a total investment of 10.5 billion yuan, and the first phase of the project will be put into operation later this year.

 "The high reliability, cost-effective, large-scale and energy-saving international offshore data center in Lhasa is now officially pre-open to global business partners and potential customers," said Hu Xiao, general manager of the Lhasa-based firm.

"More and more Chinese companies are investing and trading with South Asian countries, such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Most of these companies are considering upgrading or rebuilding their IT systems," said Hu.

"The cloud storage center is like an off-shore data embassy for Chinese companies and their counterparts in South Asia," he said. 

Founded in 2014, Ningsuan is betting on the pivotal position of Tibet in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and South Asian gateway. 

Tibet's low average temperatures, clean air and abundant renewable energy for power generation are perfect to operate a big data center, Hu said. 

Electricity consumption accounts for about 60 percent of the costs of keeping a big data center up and running.

"In South Asian countries, higher temperatures, meaning bigger costs for cooling, and relatively unstable power supply, meaning more consumption of fuel oil, make running of a locally deployed data center not cost-effective. We will discuss further if they wish their operating expenses to be 40 percent lower compared to the past."

Before developing an international market, Ningsuan is also a major data storage facility for local Tibetan firms in the electricity, finance and internet industries. 

"Developing the digital economy will obviously bolster Tibet's international influence in the sector by giving full play to its geological advantages, which will further enhance our connection with South Asia," Bianba said.

Tibet's own path

The high-tech and digital sectors, combined with agriculture, tourism and culture, green industries and modern services have become major industries in the region.

According to Yang, Tibet can support data consumption for the outside, and meanwhile enhance the external understanding of it. 

There are factors that restrict development of the digital economy due to a lack of skilled personnel, research and development and a market environment that you find in other regions of the country, said Chu Guang, vice general manager of the Tibet Gaochi Science and Technology Information Industry Group.

"The region is vast with a sparse population, and some remote areas have no facilities, posing challenges for data collection," Chu told the Global Times earlier.

"It is important for Tibet to change its traditional mindset and fully promote its information industries led by the high-tech sector," Chu said.

The state-owned Gaochi announced in January that it will cooperate with the local government of Nyingchi in southeast Tibet, to turn the city, which is a popular tourist destination, known for its peach blossoms every March, into a smart city template for the region within the next decade.

Similar to the natural conditions of Southwest China's Guizhou Province, China's first big data pilot zone, where temperatures can average 15 C and electricity costs are very low, Tibet is considering whether it can learn from the industry model that Guizhou, one of China's poorest and most underdeveloped provinces, has put into practice.

Attracting heavyweight players, including Apple, Qualcomm, Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba and Foxconn to establish cloud computing and big data centers as well as regional headquarters, the big data industry in Guizhou is expected to gain a total revenue of 100 billion yuan by 2020, media reports said.

However, as far as Hu is concerned, the two provinces have different development strategies. "Guizhou can expand its network infrastructure and big data application in the meantime, but Tibet, due to the uniqueness of its geography, needs to start from a data center and platform and then gradually head for big data application after enough data collection," Hu said.

"Lhasa is oriented to be a bridgehead for the BRI and South Asian countries by enabling data exchange from both domestic and foreign firms," he added.
Newspaper headline: High expectations as plateau goes digital


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