Bhutan needs third Internet Gateway: Philip Smith

Despite rapid Internet development, Bhutan still has a long way to go, says Philip Smith, the man who brought Internet to Bhutan.

Philip Smith was the brain behind the Internet in the country in June 1999 when the nation the celebrated the Silver Jubilee of His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s reign.

He said the main issue with Bhutan’s Internet today is that the Internet imported from India is expensive and that there are only few experts.

He suggested Bhutan to get another Internet gateway. The challenges with access to Internet backbone here is huge.

He said that at present drawing the Internet connection just from India gives Bhutan limited options. “If we could get directly from Bangladesh, the prices could come down significantly.”

He said what is happening is when people get some expertise, they go to India or overseas, because they can get more money maybe better recognition. “It’s such a shame because there is good talent here.”

He said that the problem is not unique to Bhutan. The best people from Pakistan and India go to work in the Middle Eastern Internet industry.

The way the private industries and some of the government companies work is that people don’t stay in the role for long. There seems to be a desire to move people out of one role to another one. He said that such thinking works for a regular job where there is plenty of people, but for IT experts because they are just a handful all in all.

“I still think I can count them in one hand. It’s that limited. So when we are to move you to some other role, is that the best use of their talent?” he said.

He said that some of the organisations here have people with unique skills sets. “The organisations need to encourage them to stay, make them feel valued, give them a role that makes them want to stay and feel proud to make things really better here.”

He said such talent pool is limited and are different from fresh IT graduates. “What I don’t want to see happening here is you having to import people from the neighbouring countries because once you do that you will never get rid of them and you won’t be self-sufficient. You end up in the worst state than even now.”

With the shortage of local IT experts, so often with so many consultant and contractors, they walk in and hammer on a keyboard for those who hire them to know and disappear again. “That’s why I am helping, because I am not really coming in and doing stuff for them, I am helping them through the thought processes, configuration, operational best practices, how to scale the map for structure and so forth.”

He added: “We are providing advice, the people are learning for themselves. So they are battling themselves.”

In 1999, he didn’t imagine that Internet would be as widespread as it is now. In early 1999, UNDP hired Philip F Smith from CISCO to establish the network to connect Bhutan to the World Wide Web. By then he had trained two Bhutanese engineers in a CISCO workshop the previous year.

“I thought I might as well go because I haven’t been there. I didn’t actually know that Bhutan was in Himalayas,” he said.

He met one of the trainees, Gangaram and other two Bhutan Telecom officials, Jichen Thinley and Tshering Norbu, who also worked on that project to bring in Internet to the country.

“In 1999, there were people saying ‘we don’t need Internet here’. Now when it’s even off for a minute, they can’t get the Facebook or they can’t get the Youtube. It’s how it changes. It’s incredible,” he said.

Philip Smith had worked in similar projects. However, it was not all smooth sailing.

The equipment arrived at Paro the day before Philip was to fly out. So the team had to set everything up and used some of the existing equipment.

After he left, Philip was helping the team remotely. The local team at Bhutan Telecom got it all up and running on the big day, June 1.

Philip Smith returned in October that year and completed all the set up work. “So it was just helping them. That’s why I always say they are the fathers of Internet in Bhutan, not me.”

For a few years, the growth of Internet users wasn’t much, only connecting few apartments, mostly government. Satellite was expensive then.

The Internet speed was two megabits per second and people were using it for mostly email. That kind of bandwidth was fine then. From then on, Philip Smith has been engaged in every major milestone in the history of Internet in the country.

So, it was really by 2006 that it got so expensive over satellite. Bhutan Telecom was working for the first optic fibre across land.

Philip Smith had to go Phuentsholing, connect to India over land.  Optic fiber in India had come to the border by then and getting the connectivity meant a big jump in bandwidth. It was bigger bandwidth for relatively cheaper price.

“And so that’s really the history of it,” said Philip Smith.

Philip Smith has travelled to Bhutan more than 20 times in the last 18 years for workshops and training, mainly for Bhutan Telecom.

“I was told that people here are obsessed with 3G. Both mobile operators launched 4G networks, the customers still want 3G,” he said.

He said that it’s important to develop more local content and host websites within the country and to try to get much Bhutanese content hosted here not in the US.

It could be a lot expensive hosting here but the traffic remains here. Building local networks would make the domestic Internet bandwidth free. “So only when people go to the overseas website, we’ve to pay for it.  We get more people into optic fiber, onto point-to-point wireless. And maybe if people do that people would want 4G than 3G.”

Philip Smith added: “These are some of the challenges. But yes, we are getting there so it’s always interesting.”

Tshering Palden

Additional reporting by 

Phurba Lhamo and Rinchen Zangmo

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