The Azerbaijani capital of Baku has been an attractive gathering point for transnational corporations and tradespeople since its independence in 1991.

Indeed, the presence of global corporations in the city has accelerated Azerbaijan’s application of ICT and digital services. Today, as the country moves to diversify its economy from energy resources, ICT infrastructure is expected to play a leading role in this transition; an ambition which forms part of the government’s long-term development plan.  

The government now runs separate digital projects intended to establish the country as the region’s digital and IT hub, which is why the GSMA’s M360 Eurasia event, to be held between 15 and 16 May, is set to return to Baku for the second time.

Data is the new oil 
Speaking to Mobile World Live (MWL), CMO at GSMA Lara Dewar said Azerbaijan is “one of those places that is coming on to the global stage a little bit more”, with Baku already home to an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix.

“The country is also soon going to host the United Nation’s COP29, so we are really beginning to see them entering the global stage,” explained Dewar, pointing to Azerbaijan’s push to build a transborder IT infrastructure, “powering a digital transformation across the wider region”. 

The transborder IT infrastructure Dewar mentioned is aptly named the digital silk route by the European Union, a project architected by AzerTelecom which will see Azerbaijan and Georgia become digital hubs in a fibre-optic corridor linking South and Central Asia with Europe. 

A report by EU4Digital claims this digital silk route is expected to open the door to modern data centres and position Eurasia as a destination for global hyperscalers that provide “services such as computing and storage at enterprise scale”, while reducing dependence on foreign internet providers and improving access to digital services for billions.

In an interview with MWL, director general of the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications (RCC) Alexey Borodin brought attention to an ongoing Online Azerbaijan Project rolled out by the government in 2021. 

At the crux of this project is the aim to “facilitate access to high-speed internet for the population and organisations in the most remote settlements of the country, as well as simplify its use”, said Borodin, with the incentive expected to blanket Azerbaijan’s entire population with high-speed connectivity by end of this year. 

5G momentum
5G momentum is also building in the region, according to the GSMA Mobile Economy Eurasia 2024 report, with network trials currently taking place in several countries including Azerbaijan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, the technology has launched in Armenia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, “albeit with limited coverage”. 

Dewar, who will be speaking at the event, said she looks forward to addressing the usage and connectivity gap in Eurasia. “I always address usage gaps. As we get excited about the innovations that are to come, we need to ensure we do not increase this gap and leave anyone behind.”

Borodin told MWL that while 5G is a “technology trend we can’t avoid”, 4G rollouts in Eurasia remain high up the industry’s agenda. “Main efforts are focused on expanding 4G capacity in urban areas and coverage to underserved areas, as well as accelerating uptake among consumers.” 

He continued: “Now that the number of smartphones is exploding, interest in 5G is expected to inevitably increase in the most advanced markets. To accelerate this process, policies are needed that can stimulate the uptake of this technology and attract investment.” 

AI and more 
Delegates at M360 Eurasia are also expected to explore how AI can be deployed across industries in the region and complement the work being done on digital and connected infrastructure. 

For example, Borodin pointed to potential applications of digital twinning, smart industrial IoT devices and AR/VR solutions to “minimise waste and leakage, reduce equipment support costs and predict maintenance of critical equipment”. 

This resonates with Dewar, who wishes to see the use of AI and other high-tech innovations “focused on the needs of local communities”. Operators in the region have made moves to devise generative AI to better meet customer demands; Azercell has launched a virtual AI assistant capable of Azerbaijani language, with Beeline Kazakhstan offering a similar service. 

However, Borodin articulated a need for Eurasia “to consolidate existing tools to support the development of the digital economy, artificial intelligence and high-tech projects”. 

“Such work involves the preparation of long-term system solutions aimed at creating a unified digital infrastructure in key areas and industries, […] transferring the economy and social sphere to qualitatively new operating principles using a management system based on big data.” 

Hence, the rapid development of AI and emerging technologies means a “lack of infrastructure needed to provide consistent access to the digital world”, according to Borodin, which stands as Azerbaijan’s key challenge. “This implies not only a [need for] high-quality Wi-Fi networks, but also constant access to electricity,” he added.  

Looking ahead to the event, the director general believes the discussions taking place will “undoubtedly not only enrich our experience as specialists, but will raise new questions for us or highlight pain points in the industry that we will have to work on in the future”.