A cooperation project between the Royal
Government of Bhutan, the Government of
India, ITU and the Universal Postal Union connects
Travel to the easternmost part of the Himalayas,
drive to the end of the most desolate road, walk for
four days along a 50-km path and you will reach
Shingkhar Lauri. There you will find a post office that
now links villagers to the rest of the world.
Or take the villages of Laya and Lunana in the
Bhutanese Himalayas. They are some of the highest
and most remote human settlements on earth. The
people who live there are yak herders who spend
time between the villages and the high altitude yak
herding camps and are cut off from the outside world
for six months a year by deep snow. In Lunana, the
people have no contact with the outside world for
seven months of the year, isolated by a combination
of impenetrable harsh winter weather and treacherous
high mountain passes.
Bhutan is, indeed, a country of remote villages
that have remained largely disconnected from the
world and from one another until recently. News
travelled as it had for centuries, on foot. Telephones,
and not to mention data services that are so common
elsewhere, were simply non-existent. Even today,
Bhutan’s telephone penetration stands at 12.2 per
cent in urban settings and a mere 4.9 per cent in rural
areas. In the most connected community, Internet
connections are present in less than 4 per cent of
households with most communities under 1 per cent.
And yet it is generally accepted that access to information
and communication technology (ICT) services
is an important component of both social and economic
development. ICT encourages national and
international trade, facilitates both business and personal
banking transactions and lays the foundation
for tourism, construction and other key employment
The good news is that a six-partner cooperation
project is helping to connect communities
throughout Bhutan using 38 post offices as ICT centres.
ITU, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the
Government of India initiated a project in 2003 in
partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan,
Bhutan Telecom and Bhutan Post as in-country partners.
The goal was to deliver the benefits of digital
technology to the most remote areas of Bhutan using
post offices. These offices were seen as the evident
venue for providing telekiosk-based telephone access,
Internet and e-post with postal employees as
an integral component for service delivery, as well as
for maintenance, repairs and replacement.
Connecting 38 post offices is a challenge.
Connecting communities as remote as Shingkhar
Lauri is a test of logistical ingenuity. Satellite links between
remote stations and a hub in the capital city
Thimphu were seen as the only solution for the most
remote links. The Government of India agreed to fund
the very small aperture terminal (VSAT) equipment
for the hub and six remote stations. It also agreed to
provide a free space segment on India’s INSAT satellite
for the two-year duration of the project, a contribution
estimated at a total of USD 500 000. Part of
the ITU contribution to the project was from funds
provided by British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom,
Ericsson, INTELSAT and Telstra. The project was inaugurated
in March 2006.
Some of the VSAT sites were so remote that helicopters
had to be used to transport materials. For
other sites, such as Merak, Bhutan Telecom had to
hire 112 people and 26 horses to carry the equipment
over steep terrain from Phongmey, the nearest
road point. Clearly, setting up these VSAT stations, all
at locations ranging from 3000 to 4000 metres, was
the project’s greatest challenge and accomplishment.
Choosing the proper hardware model was important.
To ensure sustainable power, the 1.2-metre
VSAT terminals used solar power with approximately
eight days of autonomy. The telekiosks were
equipped with one voice and one data channel and
a three-line private automatic branch exchange
(PABX). Telekiosks in less remote communities are using
traditional dial-up connectivity. The system was
built with the future in mind. The Thimphu hub can
be expanded to handle up to 100 remote stations.
Village communities, the schools, the Basic Health
Units and the Renewal Natural Resources Centres of
the Ministry of Agriculture are the direct beneficiaries
of the project. The main users are students and professionals,
who appreciate the access telekiosks provide
to career development and health programme
information. Farmers, in this heavily agricultural society,
rank as the third most frequent users. More
broadly, all users welcome the ability to connect with
distant relatives affordably. In many cases, users walk
10 to 15 km to access the services of a telekiosk.
A statement posted on the website of the
Bhutanese Newspaper Kuensel shows just how
grateful people are: “So far, we were cut off from
other parts of the country. We had to walk for days
to the “dzongkhag“ (district) headquarters for official
work. Now, with telephone connections and Internet
services, we are saved from all this trouble. We feel
connected.“ In another e-mail, the head teacher of a
primary school says: “I can see the changes already in
front of me, and I can feel the differences of yesterday
and today. So, it is indeed a blessing for all of us
here in Sombeykha and we are very much grateful for
this opportunity to convey our sincere thanks to all of
you involved in bringing these wonderful changes in
the lives of humble people, who are residing in the
most remote area.“
Beyond gratitude, the impact of the telekiosks
has been transformative both throughout society
and within the companies that manage them.
At both Bhutan Telecom and Bhutan Post, the telekiosks
have changed the work culture, reinforced
staff commitment and spurred innovative initiatives
such as the development of software for the online
tracking system and to overcome challenges of slow
dial-up connectivity. In addition, the enhanced digital
infrastructure has enabled the post office network to
work together as it never could.
If empowered to continue, telekiosks specifically
and ICT in general can catalyze structural change in
Bhutan’s economy inasmuch as improved regional
economic performance has been tied to access to ICT
infrastructure. ICT will also contribute to economic
diversity, a much-needed shift in an agriculturally
There are also challenges and problems. The
VSAT stations have been subjected to harsh weather,
all stations face serious technical challenges and the
system is not yet financially self-sustaining. Repairing
and maintaining remote stations is actually more
than a challenge. It requires sufficient parts inventory,
always present technical staff and reliable power.
None of these are currently guaranteed in Bhutan.
This said, by the end of the project period, five out
of six VSAT stations were still working and are still
working today, a testament to local ingenuity and
“Now that this project has reached its conclusion,
it offers concrete evidence that providing rural
and remote areas with access to digital technology
can have significant benefits. The VSAT system has
proved to be the lifeline for the communities in remote
locations, and has become an essential part of
the national administration. These revamped post offi
ces provided most people with their first experience
of access to ICT,“ said Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid
Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development
Bureau (BDT) and Edouard Dayan, Director General
of the Universal Postal Union.
The private sector is also knocking at the door.
They are setting up their own breed of commercial
connectivity in many telekiosk communities and they
are doing so with lower organizational overhead.
Average revenue from each of the five active VSAT
stations is between USD 110 and 180 per month and
is frustratingly insufficient to meet operational costs.
But there is room to grow, and the Royal Government
of Bhutan has expressed its long-term commitment
to the project. The key now is to make the project
Sustainability is by far the project’s major challenge.
Maintaining current VSAT connectivity is
expensive and difficult. Expanding the VSAT infrastructure
requires funding. So too does ongoing
management, equipment replacement, training and
awareness building. Soon, broadband will be a necessary
upgrade for dial-up locations.
There is a solution, one that has been used successfully
in Viet Nam: the transition to a communitymanaged
operation. Gradually, the community could
take over their telekiosk. They could manage it, hire
someone from the community to operate it and even
enjoy the financial rewards of profit. The rationale is
that they would more willingly support a telekiosk
that belonged to them. In this scenario, the post offi
ce would still have a role. It would oversee installation,
train new staff, maintain the equipment and
advise on new services.
This shift to a community-based model does need
transitional support. Partners, both existing and new,
will hopefully support the project until it becomes
sustainable. If they look beyond the business model,
they will see that access to digital technology is a
win-win for citizens and governments alike.
In closing, one cannot underestimate the impact
the telekiosks have had on Bhutan. Unimaginable a
few years ago, the results of the national election
were sent to all telekiosk communities in real time.
Postmasters are now tracking parcels and liaising with
their counterparts both in the capital and throughout
the country. The system has also brought a sense of
pride to its citizens and to employees within Bhutan
Telecom and Bhutan Post. Overcoming all obstacles,
setting up a modern infrastructure in the high
Himalayas and providing a genuinely appreciated
community service has given them a sense of accomplishment.
For a cost of just over USD 1 million, the
50-km mountain path to Shingkhar, connectivity for
just under 700 000 citizens, greater postal efficiency
and the potential for substantial economic growth is
now only a click away.
* This article is based on the report “Satellite Connectivity to Remote Areas and E-Services for Development: Initiatives
through Post Office Telekiosks in Bhutan“, prepared by the Telecommunication Network Development Division
of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. The report was released at the World Telecommunication
Development Conference 2010 (WTDC-10) in Hyderabad, India. It presents the results of a recent study conducted
in Bhutan in order to assess the impact of the joint Government of India, Royal Government of Bhutan, ITU and UPU