From Bhutan to e-Bhutan
The tiny Himalayan kingdom Bhutan, which is sandwiched between two Asian giants, India and China, was glad to get some computers connected with the internet facilities on June 2, 1999. With grant assistance from the United Nations Development Programme and International Development Research Center, the only Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Bhutan, Druknet started its service from Thimphu just a decade back. Now, the ISP has expanded its service to major districts in the country. The internet subscriptions have gone up by over 500 percent since its introduction in 1999, the same year when Bhutan introduced the television.
Though the exact date of entry of the first computer in Bhutan remains unknown, those having long experience in the Bhutanese bureaucracy claim that Bhutan started using computers only from early 80s. The Department of Information Technology under the Ministry of Information in 2003 figured out just 5,000 computers in the country, of which 50 percent in the government offices. According to Digital Review of Asia Pacific 2003-2004, only 1,130 computers were connected to the internet with 221 professionals managing them until 2004.
With telecommunications’ signals getting digitalized bidding farewell to traditional analogue system, number of computer users in Bhutan is roaring up with more than 1,000 computer sales each year. Before the digital telecommunications signals, there was no direct international exchange link since transmission of signals was made through the Indian operators. In recent years, Bhutan Telecom cut down tariff rates for both national and international calls, and now the consumers pay 50 percent less as compared to what they used to do in the past. This has also made dial-up internet cheaper; Bhutan is yet to get broadband. The internet charge until 2001 was Ngultrum 1,500 for a nominal package of 15 hours, equivalent to Nepali rupees 160 per hour. Now, this has come down by almost 50 percent.
Clients of Bhutan Mobile launched in 2003 are expecting to set their cell phones connected to internet in the forthcoming days. Bhutan Telecom (BT) is working hard to connect all remote places with towns and cities through telecommunications services. According to BT annual report, the most remote places like Laya and Sakten now have access to telephone. Geographically, one needs to walk 12 days and 7 days from the nearest road to reach Laya and Sakten respectively, and are located at altitude of 5,000 metres. All towns and district headquarters have telecommunications services, and more than 60 percent offices, both private and government, have computers and internet services. Most of the documents including citizenship cards are digitalized and public services are computer-based.
Vision for Commitment
Recent surveys sponsored by International Development Research Center showed that business people in Bhutan use the internet for longer hours but less frequently, while students use it more frequently but for shorter periods. To standardize the internet quality, the country’s ISP under the supervision of Bhutan Telecommunications Authority has increased its bandwidth and modem system replacing 16-port modem with 96-port dial-up modem in Thimphu and 32-port modem in Phuentsholing. These are the two districts in Bhutan with maximum internet browsers with separate internet account.
Until 2004, Bhutan was using a font application designed by Indian professionals to type Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan which has its origin from Tibetan literature and characters. With the introduction of Dzongkha compatible Unicode in 2004, developed jointly by Dzongkha Development Commission and Microsoft, Bhutan has own programming, applications and database in the national language. College of Science and Technology, Sherubtse College and Royal Institute of Management have very high enrollments of students wishing to pursue higher education in computer science and information technology.
Each year, the government of Bhutan earmarks special budget to promote IT sector. It is working to provide computers with access to the internet facilities to all schools and colleges. Around two dozens cyber cafes in Thimphu and visible numbers in Phuentsholing are providing email, internet facilities to visitors, mostly tourists and college students. Druknet, which hosts more than 150 websites, most of them developed and registered in the United Kingdom, is planning to update its capacity to meet high demands for space and bandwidth.
Prioritizing exploitation of feasible rivers to generate electricity for Indian market as a major economic icebreaker, Bhutan is emerging as a flying goose in the region having its per capita income almost doubled in less than five years. With improved economic status of the Bhutanese citizens, Bhutan will set an example in both economic progress and information technology in the coming decade when the country accomplishes the current target of generating 10,000 MW of hydroelectricity by 2020.