Internet disruption has a massive impact of Bhutan’s IT sector, govt services, private sector, communication, education and more
Three elected governments have repeatedly followed up for a third gateway with India from Bangladesh but with no luck so far
Bhutan Telecom is the largest internet service provider in Bhutan with around 410,000 phone connections and around 1,500 lease lines to various public and private institutions and companies.
A large number of both government and corporate agencies also depend on BT for its internet.
All of those internet connections came crashing down on Wednesday evening with Cyclone Amphan and it was only until Thursday evening that services could be restored completely. The internet came online for around three hours from Wednesday midnight but crashed soon after.
The reason for the downtime was that two of BT’s lines of 10 GBPs each from Tata and Airtel which both converge at Kolkata and exit to Singapore were cut at multiple places and repairs could not be done according to BT. Its separate two lines of 620 MBPs each from Tata that comes from Mumbai and exits to London were also impacted and cut by the Cyclone.
The shut down in Kolkata also took down 15 GBPs of capacity of Tashi Cell as well and it was left only with a 5 GBPs line of Airtel coming via Phuentsholing which was not affected.
Tashi Cell’s 290,000 phone subscribers and 1.020 lease line connections had to depend on this 5 GBPs line for internet connectivity which was congested, but ensured connectivity for its subscribers.
As of Friday afternoon, Tashi Cell users could not access various websites in Bhutan hosted outside as one major line was still down.
The result of the internet down time on Wednesday evening and particularly almost the whole working day of Thursday from BT had a massive impact on both the government and private sector. The internet was back only around 4.30 pm on Thursday as one Singapore line was restored and another was expected to be restored by Friday.
IT Park CEO Dr Tshering Cigay said that around 350 of the 500 or so employees at IT Park had no work at the IT park due to the internet shutdown. He said that IT park has a few companies and it becomes difficult to explain to international clients that there is no internet connectivity. He said this impacts the credibility and reliability of Bhutan’s IT sector internationally.
The CEO said IT is supposed to become an important aspect of Bhutan’s economy and a job generator for youth in the future and so redundancy becomes very important.
He said that Bhutan’s aim is to also host Data Centers but the main concern of international companies is a redundancy and this blackout in fact would not help.
He said that whenever international companies are approached for investment in Bhutan the first thing they ask is about the redundancy or back up line.
He said, “Internet connectivity has now become as essential as oxygen for companies and systems in today’s world and you cannot do without it.”
The damage was not only to Bhutan’s fledgling IT sector but a host of government e-services from getting an NOC to a gas cylinder was also impacted as people could not access them without internet.
The loss of internet for the whole of Thursday during working hours also impacted the government in particular as social distancing norms have civil servants working from home using internet connection.
Many government offices also could not engage in communication via email and other means due to the internet being down.
A major newspaper could only take out news after physically transferring files in pen drives between different computers.
Many private companies could also not work to full capacity due to the outage of internet affecting their communication and services.
While Bhutan was lucky to escape the wrath of Cyclone Amphan the downtime of the internet also hampered communication during a time of potential natural disaster where internet connectivity plays a vital role in sending information.
Bhutan Telecom MD Karma Jurmi said that a large part of disaster management communication depends on internet connectivity and entire lines going down would have an impact.
The impact was also felt by many students and teachers who were left without internet due to the downtime and so a lot of of online classes and assignment were not possible.
Those in quarantine who depend on the internet to keep them connected and occupied were also cut off.
Impact was also felt by hundreds of thousands or ordinary Bhutanese now used to the internet as a means of work, communication, social interaction and even entertainment.
With the lack of internet connection almost paralyzing the nation the main lesson for both the Bhutan Telecom MD Karma Jurmi and Tashi Cell MD Tashi Tshering is the urgent need for a third international gateway via Bangladesh and Assam in addition to the current route via Kolkata and Siliguri.
Both the MD’s said that if Bhutan had this back up link then the internet would still be functioning given that Bangladesh was not as impacted as West Bengal by the Cyclone.
The two current international gateways come from Mumbai exiting to London and Chennai exiting to Singapore through deep sea cables. The problem for Bhutan is that both these cables converge in a narrow area through Kolkata and then Siliguri.
So any natural disaster or outage hitting this Kolkata to Siliguri areas from a Cyclone to an earthquake would impact internet connectivity to Bhutan, and the two MDs pointed out this is what exactly happened with Cyclone Amphan.
The BT MD said that a third international gateway would provide for better geographical redundancy avoiding Kolkata and Siliguri as while the cyclone affected West Bengal it did not impact Bangladesh as much.
The Tashi Cell MD also said that main 15 GBPs line suffered due to fiber cuts with fallen poles. The MD also said that the solution is to get a third international gateway from Bangladesh via India but that while Bhutan has been trying to get this for a decade it has not moved forward for some reason.
The CEO of the IT Park said that it was to prevent exactly this kinds of scenario that Bhutan has been pushing for a third international gateway.
Bhutan for a period of now 10 years has seen three elected governments pushing for third third international gateway through Bangladesh but despite repeated follow ups by all three MoIC Ministers and two Prime Ministers and assurances from the other side nothing has really moved on the ground.
The latest follow up was initiated in November 2019 when the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) under the MoIC wrote via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its counterpart of the Department of Telecommunication under Ministry of Communication in India.
The change over the years has been that instead of taking the line directly from Bangladesh via India the Indian side has indicated that it may be possible for Bhutan to take the line from the intermediary Indian companies who take the line from Bangladesh.
A source said that Bhutan’s DITT and India’s DIT are in discussions but the main problem is the pricing offered by Indian companies for the Bangladesh line.
It comes to around three times than what BT and T-Cell are currently paying for their supply of GBPs.
The Indian side has said that the Indian rates is also due to the cost of the Bangladesh rates.
The attempt right now is to get a rate that will be acceptable to Bhutan’s two Telcos and also its consumers.
If everything works out, then the line from Bangladesh would be coming via Assam and it could either come through Gelephu or Samdrupjongkhar.
It has been learnt that the current Indian Ambassador has expressed interest in this and is trying to push it, but the Indian Embassy did not provide any comment when asked for an update on the project.
Bhutan currently does not meet the ‘International Internet Backbone Redundancy’ which requires Bhutan to have at least 100 km of separation between the two main international links for Bhutan.
To overcome this issue, Bhutan, since 2011 has been consistently requesting India to allow it to take a fiber- optic line from Cox Bazar in Bangladesh through India and into Samdrup Jongkhar so that there is an alternate route in case the narrow Siliguri link fails.
Bangladesh, which took a new submarine line connection a few years ago of 200 GBPs, has an excess of around 50 GBPs which it wants to export.
The initial request from Bhutan was a new line from Bangladesh from Cox Bazar through India into Bhutan.
During the time of the first elected government the matter was followed up by the then MoIC Minister Nandalal Rai, Foreign Ministry and the two Telcos in June, August and September 2011, early 2012 and May 2013. The then MoIC minister personally followed up with his counter part in the Indian Telecom minister in August and September 2011.
During the time of the second government the two Telcos in September 2013 informed that the rates asked by the intermediary Indian companies was too high.
In April 2014 the former Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay asked the MoIC to write to the MFA and then the Indian Embassy to pursue the third international gateway. In June 2014 the two Telcos were asked to follow up again but they got back by July 2014 saying the prices are too high.
Not deterred the then cabinet in July 2014 itself asked the MoIC to write through the MFA to the Indian government for a priority line for Bhutan.
The then MoIC Minister D.N Dhungyel in September, 2014 discussed the issue with Telecom Ministers of India and Bangladesh and they assured Bhutan of their support to bring in the connectivity from Cox’s Bazaar.
Bhutan was told by India to wait till the Northeastern states of India got their bandwidth from Cox’s Bazaar.
Bhutan’s MoIC Minister again followed up in November 2014.
In August 2016 Bhutan followed up the matters when the Bangladesh Telecom Minister visited Bhutan with follow up by a technical team visiting Cox Bazar in September 2016 and the MoIC Minister visiting Bangladesh and Cox Bazar in October 2016.
Bhutan took up the matter in 2017 again but again nothing moved.
In 2018, after the DNT government came, in the current Prime Minister Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering during his Bangladesh visit took this up as one of the issues.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in August 2019 the MoIC was asked by the MFA to prepare a brief on this issue as one of the issues that would be discussed with the Indian side.
In 2014 Bhutan had been assured by the then Indian Communications and IT minister that Bhutan would also get a link once India got its own fiber-optic link from Bangladesh.
In March 2016 both the Indian and Bangladeshi Prime Ministers inaugurated the fiber-optic cable link from Bangladesh going to Agartala and other places in the North- East like Guwahati etc.
India would be buying a 10 GBPs line at the rate of Nu 600 per MBPs per month from Bangladesh. However, following up on the Indian IT minister’s promise when Bhutanese companies approached Indian companies they were told that the rate would be around Nu 2,100 per MBPs making it economically unviable.
This has greatly puzzled Bhutanese officials and companies who cannot understand why such a high margin is being kept by the Indian companies for only a few 100 kilometers. This is when Bangladeshi officials even promised a ‘friendship price’ to Bhutan which may be even lower than the price to India.
Bhutan currently buys at around Nu 700 per MBPs per month from India through the Siliguri corridor.
However, even with the latest discussions stuck around pricing by the Indian side first pointed out in September 2013, the circle seems to come around again with no real movement.