Connecting Bhutan

Many of you would have noticed that I was able to regularly update this blog during my recent visit to Sombaykha and Gakiling. And, that I was able to tweet about my experiences there. Romeo, a regular commentator, was sufficiently impressed to remark:

It is indeed incredible that you are connected through out your trek and able to keep us informed of your whereabouts and also update your informative blog. How is this possible? Are you carrying your laptop along and that you are connected through satellite to the internet? Hasn’t Bhutan progressed in terms of communication?

Yes, it is incredible that I could stay connected through most of the trip. After all, both Sombaykha and Gakiling are remote gewogs that can be reached only by undertaking an ardous journey on foot.

But no, I did not use a satellite service to connect me to the internet. That would have been expensive and cumbersome.

What I did use was B-mobile. You see, they had recently expanded their coverage to many parts my constituency, and wherever I could catch their signal, I could access the internet. This is possible because I have subscribed to B-mobile’s 3G services.

3G allows me to connect to the internet at a blistering speeds of up to 7.6 Mbps (but more likely 2 Mbps as the bandwith is shared among concurrent users). But 3G is currently available only in Thimphu. In other parts of the kingdom, the 3G subscriptions automatically downgrade to EDGE or, if that is not available, to GPRS. EDGE, which is available in all dzongkhag headquarters, allows speeds of up to 128 Kbps, and GPRS, available everywhere else, up to 54 Kbps depending on signal strength and hardware configuration.

All this means that I can now connect to the internet on my phone or, if I use a data card, on my laptop anywhere I am able to receive a B-mobile signal. That was basically how I blogged and tweeted through most parts of my constituency.

But that’s not all … Tashi Cell, Bhutan’s second cellular service provider, has also expanded to my constituency. And, I’m sure that they too provide mobile access to the internet. So, I actually had a choice!

Yes, Romeo, Bhutan has indeed progressed in terms of communication.

Connectivity for ICT businesses

In my last entry I celebrated the government’s promise to make Bhutan an attractive destination for ICT businesses. I am truly excited at the prospects of using ICT to strengthen our economy, create much needed jobs and generated revenue, all while safeguarding our brand-image as a country that’s serious about gross national happiness.

But yesterday I was reminded that our government will need to do a lot of work if ICT is to become a viable business in Bhutan. This is especially so if we want to attract foreign investment to spearhead the development of ICT businesses.

What happened yesterday? I couldn’t go online. And I’m still having trouble accessing international websites, including this blog.

So I called up Bhutan Telecom’s customer service (at 1700-1700) and learnt that, on the night of 3rd April, strong winds forced a tree on a BPC tower in Bunakha damaging both electrical and fibre optic cables. The electrical cables have already been restored, but it appears that it might take longer (3 to 4 days, I was told) to repair the fibre optic cables.

Though the storm at Bunakha has affected international uplinks to Hong Kong and London, Bhutan Telecom continues to provide about 10 Mbps link to Phuentsholing using their microwave link. But 10 Mbps is not enough to do the smallest of ICT businesses. In fact, even the 116 Mbps that Bhutan Telecom provides at full capacity will not be enough to develop an industry around ICT.

So our government should upgrade existing links and build alternate international links to make connectivity sufficiently reliable in our country. This should not be too difficult if the Universal Service Fund, which consists of license fees amounting to Nu 777 million each from Tashi Cell and B-Mobile, is used to finance these critical investments. The Fund, after all, was established to do just this sort of work.

Only after improving our connectivity infrastructure will investors – national and foreign – take our government’s promise to make Bhutan an attractive location to do ICT businesses seriously.

Otherwise get ready for more disruptions. See “Stayin online” for an earlier entry about unreliable internet services.

A second chance…

During the Nasscom annual strategy meeting held in Thimphu last week, Narayana Murthy, Infosys Chairman, announced that he would train 100 Bhutanese in his company. The offer is timely and, if used well, would be the first significant step towards creating the knowledge and skills base required to develop a viable ICT industry in Bhutan.

A similar offer was made by Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s PM, during his visit to Bhutan in June 2005. The visiting PM “…commended the Bhutanese’s versatility with the English language…” and publicly announced that he would be prepared to employ many Bhutanese as English teachers in Thailand. How many have been employed so far? Zero. Why? Because no one was given and no one took the lead to followed up with the Thai government. No one – not RCSC, not BCCI, not Foreign Ministry, not MOLHR – no one.

So this time let’s not squander the opportunity. Let’s get serious. Let’s make full use of Mr Murthy’s offer. Let’s begin by signing an MOU between Infosys and the government. Then let’s start the selection process.

At the least, Mr Murthy’s offer would be a welcome respite for our recent graduates, many of whom are concerned of looming unemployment.