Telecom: It is likely that the country’s mobile cellular services will become unavailable in the event of a major disaster hitting Bhutan.

When the April 25 earthquake struck Nepal, mobile cellular services even in Bhutan were affected.

Both the country’s telecommunications providers, Bhutan Telecom and Tashi InfoComm, have confirmed that this is a likely scenario.  The reason being put forth by the two companies is that their networks will not be able to handle the resulting surge in traffic.

“During time of crises, people tend to use the network at the same time, which becomes nearly impossible for our network to handle all at once,” Bhutan Telecom’s spokesperson, Sonam Choden, said.

Similarly, Tashi InfoComm commercial general manager, Jigme Thinley, said, “It’s quite impractical for any telecom operator to dimension the network for natural disaster, as it will require huge investment in putting the infrastructure in place, because of the tremendous amount of traffic being generated during the disaster.”

During the recent earthquake, there were no reports of Tashi InfoComm users facing difficulties, perhaps, given the smaller subscriber base.  However, the Bhutan Telecom network got congested.

Bhutan Telecom has around 486,490 subscribers today, but a capacity to handle only 51,000 simultaneous users during normal hours, according to information provided by the company.  This handling capacity is increased during peak hours and occasions like national holidays, according to Bhutan Telecom.  However, even during such times Bhutan Telecom users usually face difficulties in connecting to each other, or experience their calls ending abruptly after a connection is established.

Bhutan Telecom attributed the problems to external factors, and an increased usage of internet services by customers, which basically means that supply has not kept up with demand.

“We’ve over 300 sites and, at times, we face network failure due to power outage, fibre problems, etc., in one or two sites or even more. In situations like this, a person, for instance, calling from site A to site B (where) network failed due to power outage, is likely to experience call drops, congestions or difficulty in connecting,” Sonam Choden said.

“The other reason is due to changing data usage patterns and increase in 3G users. Our 3G network capacity has been congested, resulting in call drops and muting at times, mostly in the evenings,” she added.  Bhutan Telecom has 254,208 3G subscribers today.  Its 3G network can support 46,000 simultaneous users.

She added that these problems were likely to be solved only by the end of this year. “We’re rigorously working towards improving the network quality through network expansion, which would be completed by the end of 2015.”

It was pointed out by a Bhutan Telecom official that the ongoing upgrade is primarily to increase data bandwidth for 3G. “Our current upgrade is basically to increase the data throughput for 3G users,” said the official. “The current problem we’re getting is only for low 3G speed. Currently, during peak hours, there are more than 11,000 3G users, of which 90 percent are data users and 10 percent voice users.”

Tashi InfoComm has around 180,000 subscribers, of which 155,000 are active.  While a total figure on how many simultaneous connections are provided by the company was not available, Jigme Thinley said that the company adjusted or increased its simultaneous capacity over whatever average normal traffic they were experiencing.  On any given day, he added that Tashi InfoComm has around 20,000 subscribers using their network simultaneously.

Despite the high probability that mobile cellular voice services will not be available during a disaster, the possibility of mobile internet and SMS services being available is possible.  This was demonstrated during the April 25 earthquake.

Bhutan Telecom’s Sonam Choden said that the company would recommend customers minimise use of voice calls during a disaster, and use social media and SMS to communicate during a disaster. “Sudden increase in voice calls sometimes clogs our core network and it takes time to revive,” she said.

“Although, we can activate the emergency license and can get full capacity, there’s always a trade-off between investment and capacity,” Tashi InfoComm’s Jigme Thinley said.

However, availability of mobile internet and SMS will again be dependent on infrastructure surviving a disaster.

On what measures are in place to secure infrastructure against disasters, Sonam Choden said that sites and infrastructure would be restored as soon as possible following a disaster.

Tashi InfoComm’s Jigme Thinley said that several measures were in place to ensure infrastructure survived during an earthquake or other disaster.  He pointed out that building foundations are designed and built according to earthquake resistance standards, and that all sites have back up battery in case of power failure.  Further, solar panels and diesel generators are also installed in case power was disrupted for longer periods, he said.

To ensure connectivity to the internet was maintained, he said that three separate international gateways exist.

This also applies for Bhutan Telecom, which maintains three international gateways.

Despite the measures, the government is stepping in to ensure at least a basic level of communications is available during a disaster.

Information and communications secretary, Dasho Kinley Dorji, said that the government, in a recent meeting with the two companies, recommended that both increased their voice and data bandwidths, so that more users could be accommodated.

The government has also instructed both companies to look at options to ensure communications could still occur to a certain extent in case of a disaster.  Dasho Kinley Dorji acknowledged that some of the options, like satellite communications for the masses, may be out of reach, given costs, but that, as demonstrated during the April 25 earthquake, mobile internet and social media could provide an alternative back up.

For disaster response and coordination, Dasho Kinley Dorji said that one option was providing key persons, such as disaster management and local government officials with satellite phones.  He pointed out that the army was already equipped with back up communications technology.  It was also pointed out that one of the advantages Bhutan has was strong leadership in His Majesty The King and the prime minister and, because of that, half that battle had already been won.   

He added that more input would be obtained from NGOs, like the Red Cross, on how to guarantee some form of communications was available.

Once options and solutions have been identified, they would be submitted to the government for approval, he said.