ICT: Data is now more popular than voice minutes, changing the way Bhutanese communicate today. The shift in the demand for more data than the voice network has created an additional challenge for the two cellular operators in the country.

In a recent survey report from the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA), the data network performance of the two telcos were found be under satisfactory.

The overall performance of the voice network of both the telcos according to the report was found to be better than that of their data network.

The report stated that TashiCell’s data network performance was worst in the months of May and June. However, the network showed significant improvement in the following months.

TashiCell managing director, Tashi Tshering, said that poor data network in the two months was mainly because of the introduction of the 4G LTE facility.

“We launched the 4G LTE service in April and the data was taken from May and June. During that time after the launch May and June was the worst period of our network because of the migration from 3G to 4G,” said Tashi Tshering. “There were so many issues during that time, we were working on fixing the issue. That’s why we had a bad network during that period.”

Tashi Tshering said that although the telco’s data network had improved considerably today, the operator is working to enhance the network further. “Although our data network is way above the required standard, we are working to further improve our network and to provide the best we can to our customers.”

Bhutan Telecom on the other hand continued to struggle with its data network during the survey period (April to August). According to the report, no significant improvement was observed in the telco’s performance rather it is deteriorating.

An official from Bhutan Telecom said that the poor data performance was mainly as a result of congestion due to the exponential growth of data users. “The ever growing number of data users per se is due to BT’s affordable tariffs and coverage,” said one of the officials.

He said that to address the problem in places like Olakha and Dechencholing areas as reported in the survey, the telco has upgraded and put in additional 3G equipment. In Taba, Bhutan Telecom has installed additional 3G sites in upper Taba and also installed additional 3G and 4G stations in Pamtsho.

To improve the service quality and decongest the 3G networks, Bhutan Telecom has implemented the 4G LTE on a full throttle basis. The official said that the initiative would in turn improve the voice network.  For the voice network, the telco is adding extra 2G Base Transceiver Stations (BTS).

The official said that at times there are some call drops in certain locations caused due to various factors such as power failure, fluctuations in radio and technical faults, among others. And also as a BTS in a location has maximum and minimum capacities, there will be congestion if users exceed the maximum capacity due to floating users, he added.

BT today has around 424,000 subscribers. TashiCell on the other hand has almost half BT’s total subscribers. Tashi Tshering said that the people’s notion on higher users corresponding to weaker network is not true.

He said that with a larger customer base, telcos can generate larger revenue resulting in more investment on infrastructure and equipment to improve the network. “Currently for both TashiCell and Bhutan Telecom the subscriber base is too small,” said Tashi Tshering. “Technology has huge capability. Even if we have 1 million subscribers in Thimphu alone, we should be able to cater to all these people. The more we have we can actually do better.”

As a cellular network operator in Bhutan, Tashi Tshering said the biggest challenge is having a small customer base. Now with the transition of cellular choice from voice to data, TashiCell is working towards enhancing its data network and establishing an ecosystem suitable for such demands.

“Until last year, our business was purely voice based. Now it is almost 50-50 and soon data is going to take over voice. Since last month we are getting more revenue from data than voice and slowly a major chunk of our revenue will come from data,” he said, adding that the operator has to now reconfigure its network to make it suitable for data services.

This year TashiCell has a capital outlay of about Nu 600 million in the pipeline to be invested for network improvement. The telco is also seeing an increasing number of subscribers at the rate of 20 percent annually.

Younten Tshedup