Case study of telecommunications infrastructure: Hong Kong

By Matt Burdett, 14 February 2019

On this page, we look at Hong Kong as a case study of infrastructure growth over time in one city. This page is part of a series on Hong Kong’s infrastructure that includes international links, transport, telecommunications, energy and water and sanitation.

  • Ladies Market, Mong Kok, Hong Kong. This street lies in the middle of the most densely populated district on Earth.

Telecommunications in Hong Kong

Telecommunications refers to any way of connecting with another person using technology. One way communication includes TV and radio, while two way communication includes fixed line telephones, mobile telephones and internet services. This page focuses on Hong Kong’s very well developed internet and telephone services.

Internet services

In 1998 Hong Kong’s government began its Digital 21 Strategy, which has been regularly updated since (Tech Wire Asia, 2018), which coordinates the overall plans to ensure that Hong Kong developed a leading role in internet communications in Asia. This led to the 2006 launch of the GovHK portal, a one-stop-shop for all online government services (GovHK, 2019). In 2015 the strategy was further enhanced by the establishment of an Innovation and Technology Bureau. However, Hong Kong has maintained a very competitive approach to internet services: companies have to comply with relatively little regulation, and any company is allowed to bid for a licence regardless of the location of its headquarters. These efforts have led Hong Kong to have one of the most advanced networks in the world. In the 2016 Global Information Technology Report (Baller, Dutta, and Lanvin (eds.) 2016) Hong Kong ranked 12th in the world for Networked Readiness overall and 25th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure (out of 139 countries and territories). The radial graph below shows the report’s analysis of Hong Kong’s network readiness compared to other High Income countries and territories.

  • The network readiness profile for Hong Kong Special Administrative Region according to the 2016 Global Information Technology Report. Source: Baller, Dutta, and Lanvin (eds.) 2016, p107

In 2006 the government began a programme to ensure all residents could access wifi services. In addition to being available in all public libraries, the government works with private businesses to provide wifi hotspots throughout the city including at places such as transport terminals, major public venues and government offices. At the time of writing, there are over 3500 wifi hotspots around Hong Kong (see map below) (WifiHK, 2019). Although accounting only for a small amount of Hong Kong’s internet connections, the availability of free wifi throughout the region has raised the profile of internet services and ensured that all residents have the opportunity to access internet services.

  • Fixed Wifi hotspot locations around Hong Kong. Source: Wifi.HK 2019

As well as Hong Kong’s local connections, it is also very well connected to the rest of the world via undersea cables, as shown on the two maps below. Despite the cities of Dongshan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Zhuhai having a combined population of well over 20 million people, it is Hong Kong (population 7.2 million) that is directly connected via internet cables to the United States, Japan and other countries.

The development of more undersea cables is constant. At the time of writing, a new 12800 kilometer cable from Los Angeles to Hong Kong is being completed. When finished it is predicted to have the capacity to transport 144000 gigabits per second (Hecht, 2018). However, the strength of Hong Kong’s internet connection is the network of cables that means even if one stops working the system can still function. One such occasion occurred in 2006 when an earthquake in the Luzon Strait south of Taiwan cut the main cables from Hong Kong to the USA. It took over a month to repair the cables, and the lesson was learned that multiple cables in different routes are required (Cheng, 2010).

Fixed line telephone services

Multiple companies offer fixed-line services; by March 2015, 78.9% of households could connect to at least three different networks, and 95% of households were connected to at least one (Communications Authority, 2016). The government requires telephone companies to be licenced, and as part of the licence conditions the companies offer free calls within Hong Kong as part of the monthly subscription package. Phone calls to places outside Hong Kong use a combination of undersea cables, land cables and a network of over 220 satellites (Communications Authority, 2016). The density of the population in Hong Kong means there are lower costs to connect people via cables (the cables can be shorter), which makes it an attractive investment for telephone companies, which ensures competition in the market.

Mobile telephone services

It is a stereotype that people from Hong Kong are keen on technology, but it definitely holds true for their love of mobile phones. It has one of the highest usage rates in the world, with over 16 million phone subscriptions. This represents 228% of the population subscribing to a mobile phone service – meaning the average subscriptions per person is 2.28! (Communications Authority, 2016.) Almost the entire territory has a 3G connection and urbanised areas have 4G connections (NPerf, 2019).

Hong Kong aims to be one of the first places in the world to achieve a high penetration rate (meaning, a high number of people using the service) for 5G. This is a valid aspiration because 5G frequencies do not travel well over long distances, so a high density of population can help to ensure that the costs of setting up the infrastructure are minimised. It is estimated that each mobile phone company will need to install 5000 base stations to ensure adequate coverage; thanks to Hong Kong’s lack of rural areas, this is a relatively low number, and 5G is likely to begin in Hong Kong in late 2019 or 2020 (Chung, 2018).


Sources

Baller, Dutta, and Lanvin (eds.) 2016. The Global Information Technology Report 2016. World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GITR2016/WEF_GITR_Full_Report.pdf Accessed 14 February 2019.

Cheng 2010. HKIX Updates & HKIX Updates & Bilateral Peering over HKIX. The Chinese University of Hong Kong / The Chinese University of Hong Kong / Hong Kong Internet Exchange Hong Kong Internet Exchange. http://www.hkix.net/hkix/Presentation/forum20100129.pdf Accessed 14 February 2019.

Chung, 2018. Hong Kong aims for cheaper, faster 5G roll-out with proposal to not charge telcos for spectrum. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/hong-kong-economy/article/2157078/hong-kong-aims-cheaper-faster-5g-roll-out-proposal Accessed 14 February 2019.

Communications Authority [Office of the Communications Authority], 2016. Telecommunications. https://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/factsheets/docs/telecommunications.pdf Accessed 14 February 2019.

GovHK, 2019 Government’s ICT Strategy & Initiatives. https://www.gov.hk/en/residents/communication/government/governmentpolicy.htm Accessed 14 February 2019.

Hecht 2018. Submarine cable goes for record: 144,000 Gigabits from Hong Kong to L.A. in 1 Second. ITU News. https://news.itu.int/submarine-cable-hk-la/ Accessed 14 February 2019.

NPerf, 2019. Cellular data networks in Hong Kong. https://www.nperf.com/en/map/HK/-/-/signal/?ll=22.353648612084893&lg=114.11849999999998&zoom=10 Accessed 14 February 2019.

Tech Wire Asia, 2018. Understanding Hong Kong’s digital transformation journey. https://techwireasia.com/2018/11/full-throttle-what-is-driving-hong-kongs-accelerated-digital-journey/ Accessed 14 February 2019.

Wifi.HK, 2019. Fixed Hotspot Locations. https://www.wi-fi.hk/en/HotspotLocation Accessed 14 February 2019.


Case study of telecommunications infrastructure: Hong Kong: Learning activities

Questions

  1. Describe the history of Hong Kong’s internet infrastructure. [3]
  2. Identify the main strengths of Hong Kong’s network readiness. [3]
  3. Suggest how offering free wifi hotspots has helped Hong Kong to become a world leader in internet services. [4]
  4. Describe the distribution of wifi hotspots across Hong Kong. [3]
  5. State two facts about Hong Kong’s use of fixed line telephones. [2]
  6. Explain how it is possible for 228% of Hong Kong’s population to have mobile phone subscriptions. [2]
  7. Explain why Hong Kong is ideally suited to implement a 5G mobile phone network. [4]

Other tasks

Read the the 2016 Global Information Technology Report (Baller, Dutta, and Lanvin (eds.) 2016). Choose another city in the world and identify the differences between Hong Kong’s standard of network readiness and your chosen city.


© Matthew Burdett, 2019. All rights reserved.

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