A handful of gewogs presents the ultimate challenge to the goal of national connectivity
Internet: To obtain a birth or death certificate, residents of Lunana have to walk 10 days to the Gasa administrative headquarters. The return journey is another 10-day walk.
Additionally, the journey is only possible during the summer months, when the passes are not snowed under.
While mobile connectivity, recently introduced, has helped to some degree in speeding up certain administrative processes, there are limitations.
For instance, when the minutes of a meeting have to be shared with headquarters, it has to be sent on the back of a horse.
Lunana, with a population of around 700, has no internet connection, and is one of the last few gewogs not connected.
The government has committed to establishing a community centre in each of the 205 gewogs, so that the communities there have easy access to public or G2C (government to citizen) services.
So far, 195 of the centres have been established, and 156 of them connected to the internet. A further four are currently under construction, and all centres are expected to be connected to the internet by year’s end.
But, like Lunana, there are four other gewogs that are presenting formidable challenges towards achieving this goal of connecting all 205 gewogs.
Besides no internet connectivity, the gewogs of Soe, Naro, and Lingzhi in Thimphu, and Laya and Lunana in Gasa, do not even have electricity yet.
However, Laya could be connected to the electricity grid by next year, and Soe and Lingzhi, in a few years, within the present 11th Plan.
This would leave only Lunana and Naro without electricity, that is, if work goes according to plan.
Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) economist, Chencho, said that, while the plan is to cover all 205 gewogs with a community centre, when it came to these five gewogs, the department is still considering its options.
Given that Soe and Lingzhi may be connected only in a few years, Chencho said this might mean that DITT would still have to step in and provide an alternative source of electricity so that it can go ahead and establish the centres. The government has placed the five gewogs on a priority list to receive G2C services.
An alternate energy source would most likely mean solar equipment, but this will be expensive. Each gewog could cost at least Nu 4 million, not including training and placement of personnel to maintain the equipment.
But Chencho also pointed out that the department has to contemplate whether to invest in such expensive equipment now or wait for the Department of Energy and Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC) to connect the gewogs with electricity sooner than expected. He said if such a scenario occurred, the investment may be considered by some as wasted resources.
DITT currently has an agreement with BPC to use its transmission towers to string its optical fibre cables that bring internet to the gewogs, a significantly cost saving partnership. For instance, as Laya will be connected with electricity, constructing a community centre and connecting it to the internet would not be a challenge.
For the remaining gewogs, if solar electricity is provided first, wireless technology would have to be used to provide internet services, which is significantly more expensive.
Two kinds of “last mile” wireless technology, White Space and WiMax, are already being experimented with. White space technology uses unused airwaves reserved for analog television to provide internet, while WiMax is a more powerful version of Wi-Fi technology.
Again, Chencho said the government would have to weigh the pros and cons of large investments for populations that are comparatively small. He compared it to the construction of a farm road for just a few households. Naro gewog has only 35 households in its 22 villages, for instance.
Information and Communications secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji pointed out that the government is committed to covering all 205 gewogs with community centres. He added that it might never be cost effective or sustainable in investing in such equipment for such lightly populated gewogs but if the government did not, it would discourage the people from living there.
Dasho Kinley explained that there were other implications that have to be considered, like rural-urban migration and equitable development and that significant funds would be required to meet the government’s commitment. However, he added that, as a GNH country, such investments will have to be made.
Gyalsten K Dorji