Phub Dem 

One of the most popular pledges of the government has been providing free Wi-Fi and developing a domestic social network application, Sungjoen.

Running four years now, the government is yet to implement the pledge.

According to information and communications (MoIC) minister, Karma Donnen Wangdi, the ministry is still exploring a suitable way forward for Starlink services and ways to operationalise it.

He said that it was difficult for a government agency to handle commercial deals and address the operations and maintenance of such deployments across the country.

He said: “The ministry is exploring local entities to take this implementation forward keeping in mind the priorities and safeguarding the current and future interests of the country.”

The government has proposed to establish at least one Starlink Wi-Fi hotspot in each of 1,044 chiwogs and 100 Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas through local Internet service providers.

The estimated cost is  Nu 2.930 billion for five years.

Starlink is a SpaceX initiative to create a global broadband network by using a constellation of low-earth-orbit satellites.

The State of the Nation report 2021 stated that MoIC had proposed 3,000 Starlink user terminals in the country for both free Wi-Fi and interested private users; establishment of a Starlink Gateway; Starlink to be allowed as an FDI in the ICT sector (ISP) as per the requirement of the Information Communication and Media Act of Bhutan 2018.

The ministry has also proposed that Starlink be allowed as a 100 percent FDI company as it differs from what was spelt out in the FDI Policy 2019.

The report also stated that the government has initiated the design of the Sungjoen App for domestic users. It stated that the application would be redeveloped to function as a universal modular platform with additional features to make or receive payments, provide G2C services, and government notifications or announcements, among others.

Lyonpo said that MoIC conducted research on the economics and the technical requirements for the development and operations of the platform. The findings, he said, revealed that to establish the platform, the government would have to put in place a similar system to that of WhatsApp, WeChat, or Zoom, which requires significant investments to handle thousands of transactions reliably.

He said that the platform also requires the establishment of online support services and would require domestic experts to develop and operate the essential components to ensure reliable services. “The budgetary impact of the initiative on the overall development and the costs to operate it over the years would be significant.”

Considering the government’s ultimate aim to reduce the cost of communication, Lyonpo said that the ministry was exploring other options to achieve this objective by focusing on the reduction of connectivity costs.

“The ministry is working with regulators to identify solutions to reduce the costs of connectivity that will help the government make reasonable investments and avoid crowding out technological innovation in the private sector,” Lyonpo said.