TELECOM: It was Sunday, November 17, 1991. Father William Mackey, Chief Inspector of the Department of Education, spoke to one of his students on the telephone. “I’ll pull your ear if you fail to do your homework,” said the Canadian Jesuit from Thimphu’s first telephone booth at the heart of town.
People expressed relief. They no longer had to beg the telephone owners in town who refused to let them use their telephones, or charged large amounts for their use. Twelve years later, in 2003, Bhutan Telecom launched the first unmanned tele-kiosks in Thimphu. A new era of communication had begun.
But the five tele-kiosks – three along Thimphu’s main thoroughfare and two at the office of the Road Safety and Transport Authority at Lungtenzampa – did not stand for long. They disappeared, quietly as they came, out of public sight and memory.
What did really happen that the kiosks had to go? How did it happen?
“People weren’t being responsible. Youth were kicking and breaking the kiosks at night. So we had to remove them,” said a telecom official, who was then the area manager in Thimphu. That was a time when not a lot of people in the country owned a telephone. There were still many public call offices (PCO) and shops operating as PCOs.
Then began a cooperation project between the Bhutan, India, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Universal Postal Union to connect Bhutan’s isolated communities from Lauri to Lunana. Post offices played a vital role as PCOs, linking the remote villages to the rest of the world.
Village communities, schools, Basic Health Units and the Renewal Natural Resources Centres were the immediate beneficiaries of the project. Students, farmers and professionals made use of tele-kiosks for career development opportunities and health programme information.
In the towns and cities, however, phone booth and kiosks were quickly becoming redundant. Suddenly, owning a telephone was not a problem for the people. Internet and mobile communication had arrived.
“The kiosk would have been there still if people respected their purpose. Maintenance became a burden. Even as people were making used of the tele-kiosks, we had to remove them,” said a telecom official.
In some areas in Thimphu, one can still see the last vestiges of that age of communication. There are a few PCO places in town still.
“But it was the arrival of mobile phones that killed the idea of tele-kiosks. Calls became cheaper on mobile phones, so the shift was quite natural,” said an official with T-Cell. “There was no chance for the kiosks to survive the new revolution that was taking place in the country.”
With the arrival of mobile phones, fixed line telephone subscribers began to decrease gradually. From 26,348 fixed line telephone subscribers in 2009, it decreased to 23,823 in 2014. At the same time, the number of mobile cellular subscribers increased. From 26,348 cellular mobile subscribers in 2009, it increased to 628, 298 in 2014. Fixed line now serves the purpose of connection broadband Internet connection.
The importance of tele-kiosks, however, has not vanished, even in countries with advanced telecommunication facilities. They, in fact, continue to serve the people well in times of emergency.
In Bhutan, though, the few PCOs that are still around have taken a new avatar. They function as a place where people can avail of facilities like xerox and fax. Even in the remote parts of the country, where once tele-kiosks were popular, the number of users is dwindling.
When Sakteng got its first PCO in August 2001, it became an instant hit. People could call their relatives in Thimphu. Shopkeeper could find out whether there was a roadblock.
“Mobile connection has changed all that. There may be a few kiosks in the villages, but soon they’ll no more because mobile connectivity has now reach almost every nook of the country,” said a T-Cell official. “It’s by far cheaper to call on mobile phones.”
By Jigme Wangchuk