High in the foothills

15 December 2010 | Tim Phillips


One of the conversational innovations of the mobile phone era has been that now, when you answer the phone, your friend at the other end can ask: “Where are you?” In a move that will provide ever more outlandish answers to this question, Nepal’s Ncell has just built the world’s highest 3G base station in the Khumbu valley, 5,200m high in the foothills of Mount Everest.

This is higher than the top of Mount Fuji. There’s no electricity, so the mast is powered by solar panels. “There is no road and no drinking water there either,” says Sanju Koirala, corporate communications manager for Ncell, “There’s no sand or cement. All the construction materials had to be carried on a helicopter.”

But 3G masts are heavy, and the parts had to be brought from the airport in a five-day trek on mules. The construction process is arduous, because the air has about half the oxygen in it that your body is accustomed to, leading to altitude sickness. You wake in the night feeling as if you are suffocating, have severe headaches and vomiting, decreased co-ordination and feelings of disorientation.

Ncell’s base camp mast isn’t just to keep climbers and tourists in touch with home, although the boom in adventure tourism means that up to 700,000 trekkers every year want to send a photo home. They are helping to justify Nepal receiving the mobile infrastructure that is now commonplace almost everywhere in the world. You can see why the country has been a late developer though; Nepal has eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, and several hundred peaks at 5,200m or higher.

“As you can figure out, it is sometimes very costly to build masts in Nepal,” says Koirala, “but we are building everywhere. By the end of 2010 we want to cover all 75 districts.”

The 2011 goal is to have 90% coverage, at a cost of $100 million – although half of Nepal lives below the UN poverty line of $1.25 per day, meaning a slow return on investment. “The ARPU for Nepal is very low,” says Koirala, “but the phone is now a basic necessity. We don’t treat our phones as luxuries.”

Ncell is 80% owned by TeliaSonera, whose engineers get to help put up the base stations. In 2008 mobile penetration was 15%, which has already doubled. Ncell has 3.7 million subscribers in Nepal.

When the tourists go home in winter, between 4,000 and 5,000 locals in the Khumbu valley can still communicate by phone and SMS. It will, at the very least, help in keeping up with your neighbour, in a region where “local” and “neighbour” also don’t mean quite what we think they do: “You see houses where you would have to walk for four or five days just to meet your friends,” Koirala says. “Or now you could always just send a text.”

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk