…government and the telcos exploring how to bring down the cost   

Younten Tshedup 

The country’s two telecommunication companies recently offered special data packages for students to facilitate e-learning, but the general public will have to wait a little longer.

The Department of IT and Telecom (DITT) has consulted the two telcos on offering a similar package to the public, however, given the current network capacity officials said discount packages were not possible.

Officials from the department said that the government was working with the telcos to upgrade their network but that will require a substantial investment. Any upgradation work is also expected to take at least eight months.

The telcos are providing about 50 percent discount on their fixed broadband services, which is available for the public.

“But, due to lockdown in most of the countries, the telcos are not able to bring in more devices to provide services to new subscribers and they have run out of the devices that they had in stock.”

The demand for a cheaper internet continues to grow, even more so today, as people find themselves surfing online contents more than ever in the light of Covid-19 pandemic.

While not the most expensive in the SAARC region, the data charges in Bhutan are comparatively higher than those in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

DITT officials said that the country’s expensive data charges are mainly because of the small market (users) and high cost of establishing telecommunications infrastructure.

While the market is small, the data usage is also very low for Bhutan, said an official. “Thus, because of the low traffic, the cost of subscription of international bandwidth is higher for Bhutanese telecom operators.”

Also, given the difficult geographical terrain, construction of telecommunication infrastructure and the import of equipment adds to the higher cost.

Officials said that one way to address the issue is by increasing data usage in the country. Although taking every single government and other services online would increase data usage, it would just expand the local traffic.

To increase the international traffic, the government has been trying to attract IT/ITES companies and foreign data centres, said the official. However, the reliability of international connectivity remains a major challenge for now.

Today, Bhutan is connected through India with at least five lines but all of them come through the Siliguri ‘chicken neck’ corridor. Both the Phuentsholing and Gelephu gateways are connected to Siliguri.

A paradoxical situation 

Bhutan has a total international internet bandwidth of over 41Gbps of which only 50-60 percent is in use, meaning that the country has excess internet bandwidth.

DITT officials said that it is international best practice to have excess bandwidth, especially in times of emergencies, to meet the spike in network usage.

An official said, “While we need to have such excess bandwidth in place, it is true that right now, with our current network, it might not be possible to fully utilise the available bandwidth because of the bottleneck in the access network.”

He said that the majority of the population today rely on mobile broadband (3G/4G) for internet access. But the capacity of such technology is limited. Also, mobile networks are usually congested during times of emergency, which affects the internet access and the overall usage.

“It would be beneficial if more citizens subscribe to fixed broadband services (home broadband or leased line),” he said, adding that increase in the fixed broadband subscriber can significantly increase the usage in the country, which will subsequently increase the international data usage.

“And if the country subscribes to higher bandwidth, the overall rate will be lower which can bring down the cost to end-users.”

According to the department’s annual report 2018-2019, there are 598,738 people with 3G mobile internet connection, including 208,003 with 4G connection. There are 8,643 broadband connections and 1,828 leased line connections.

Another benefit of having excess international bandwidth is that it functions as a backup during times of emergencies. The official said that the 41 Gbps doesn’t come in on a single link. The bandwidth is divided into multiple links between multiple telcos.

The two telcos – Bhutan Telecom and TashiCell bring in the connection from multiple operators in India from Phuentsholing and Gelephu. “Such an arrangement is necessary as we just experienced disruption in the international link due to cyclone Amphan,” said the official. “All the links were disrupted except for one of the links of TashiCell coming from Phuentsholing. Otherwise, the country would have been cut-off completely.”

Meanwhile, officials said that the demand for the internet in the country is growing especially for mobile broadband.

To expand the fixed and lease line broadband users, the department is exploring various measures.

“But having said that, the country right now does not have a very good fixed broadband infrastructure in place,” said the official.

“Therefore, the department is working on the long-term strategy to put in place infrastructure and make fixed broadband services available to as many homes as possible in collaboration with the Internet Service Providers.”