Not locked down, but cut off

This week, Bhutan suffered a partial shutdown, which was potentially more debilitating than the Covid-19 lockdown that we have been fearing. The disruption of our Internet connectivity brought many functions of government and society practically to a standstill and distanced us from the rest of the world.

We suddenly realize how digitalised (read dependent) we have become when we find ourselves disconnected from essential services in education, health, banking, and most amenities provided by the state because they are all going online.

As luck would have it, this happened at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when we needed to be connected to families, community, and work places.

Such a situation was anticipated since Bhutan introduced the Internet in 1999. Erratic connectivity was bearable in the early years of the Internet but connectivity has become so crucial today that we need, in technical terms, “99.999 percent redundancy” (full back up). Even a split second loss of connectivity costs countries and agencies trillions of dollars with even larger social implications.

This week Internet was out for about 24 hours, not very encouraging when we look to digital connectivity as the answer for a landlocked country with rugged terrain and a scattered population. Another dream of hosting data centres for international companies was shattered.

We were shut off when fibre lines broke down more than 1,000 kilometres away. Bhutan is connected through India with at least five lines but, unfortunately, all of them come through the Siliguri “chicken neck” corridor. Both the Phuentsholing and Gelephu gateways are connected to Siliguri.

That is why we had identified the option of a back-up connection from Bangladesh, through Assam, to Samdrup Jongkhar, which then becomes the third international gateway and guarantees redundancy.

The good news is that our government is talking to our friends and neighbours – India, an advanced ICT nation, and self-declared “Digital Bangladesh”. The not so good news is that we have been discussing this for 10 years already with no progress.

But we remain optimistic because we are discussing the issue with two close and friendly neighbours. What we hope for is that, as neighbours that share borders, we can find the common interests and grounds, like other regions that have achieved development and progress through cross border connection and cooperation.

Affordable connectivity is a necessity today with some countries even declaring it a basic human right. For Bhutan, it will provide the foundation for Digitial Drukyul, which is a national priority and an exciting strategy for the future.

Bhutan has survived and thrived because of our genuine goodwill towards our neighbours. As a small country, we pose no threat, so it is time to call on our larger friends to extend their support in the interest of friendship and development of our region.

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