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ICT Success stories
Reaching the remote in Bhutan
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A cooperation project between the Royal Government of Bhutan, the Government of India, ITU and the Universal Postal Union connects isolated communities

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 sectors.

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 weighted economy.

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 motivation.

“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 sustainable.

 
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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 project.

 

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