ICT: In a move to bring down costs and encourage more services like private radio stations to expand coverage beyond Thimphu city, the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) will require infrastructure, like towers, to be shared from next month.

This means that a private radio station would be able to lease space on a Bhutan Telecom tower in another dzongkhag and place its transmitter on it. It could also allow a private internet service provider to place equipment on a Bhutan Power corporation electric tower to expand its coverage.

Such a move should decrease the costs of providing services as it removes the need to construct new infrastructure. A single tower can cost anywhere between Nu 2.5-3 million to build which is one of the reasons that has prevented, for instance, the private radio stations from broadcasting beyond Thimphu.

Currently, only the national broadcaster and Kuzoo FM are available outside Thimphu.

In theory, allowing the two telecommunications companies to share infrastructure with each other or other infrastructure owners could also drive down telecom rates for customers.

BICMA telecommunications division chief, Wangay Dorji, pointed out that new entrants into the market would be able to enter at a lower cost and would be able to deploy their services faster as the need to build new infrastructure is removed. As a result, the cost of services should come down, he said.

“Any new entrants coming into the market we will ensure that they share infrastructure,” he said. “So in that way current infrastructure providers will also make some money out of it.”

By new entrants the telecommunications division chief was referring to any kind of firms licensed by BICMA such as telecom companies, ISPs, radio broadcasters, TV stations, among others.

Referring to the private radio stations as an example, he pointed out that this is an opportunity for them to move beyond Thimphu.

There is another reason for the move. “In a small country like Bhutan it wouldn’t be good if we’ve too many towers, everybody building their own towers,” he said. He added that a “comfort zone” has already been reached where there is an adequate number of towers in the country. He pointed out that the plan is to optimise the use of these towers now.

However, he added that there may still be a requirement for more towers to be built in the rural areas. But where there are already towers or other infrastructure existing, BICMA would mandate that the infrastructure be shared.

Wangay Dorji said that as BICMA did not have the prerogative on land, it would be sharing the rule with the thromde and dzongkhag authorities. He said that the thromdes and dzongkhags would be encouraged to require infrastructure sharing and allow new towers to be built only where required, like in the rural areas.

The move has already been discussed with the telecommunications companies and other infrastructure owners like BBS, and the Bhutan Power corporation. The rule was endorsed and adopted at the end of last month.

“Taking that into consideration we wanted to mandate infrastructure sharing as per the provision of the Act,” Wangay Dorji said referring to the Information, Communications and Media Act 2006.

The rule has also been submitted to the information and communications ministry for feedback prior to implementation from September 1.

Sharing of infrastructure has already been occurring between the two telecommunications companies, Bhutan Telecom and Tashi InfoComm. For instance, a tower located below the IT park in Babesa is used by both the companies.

Wangay Dorji said that despite the absence of the rule, the two companies had been sharing infrastructure but not everywhere. The rule will mandate them to share elsewhere also, he said.

For instance, in Mothithang where Bhutan Telecom wants to improve its coverage but lacks a tower in the area, it could lease space on a Tashi InfoComm tower, rather than investing in constructing a new tower just to improve coverage, Wangay Dorji said.

The move was welcomed by one private radio station owner, Kinley Wangchuk of Radio Valley. He pointed out that the station had been planning to expand coverage to Paro but the plan was shelved after it was found too expensive to lease space on infrastructure owned by a telecommunications company.

He said that if the lease rates are affordable, the radio station would immediately expand to Paro.

Wangay Dorji said that rates would be left to the market. He added that infrastructure owners will shortly submit a list of infrastructure that would be available for lease and their rates. The rates will have to be endorsed by BICMA. “So we also have a provision for price control,” Wangay Dorji said.

By Gyalsten K Dorji