A map of the fiber-optic lines

Lack of a Fiber-optic connection from Bangladesh through India holds up Bhutan’s true IT potential

Absence of this back up line proposed for 9 years by Bhutan has prevented international companies from investing in Bhutan’s IT sector

In the last few years Bhutan’s Fledgling IT Industry has taken off with the success of the IT Park and other initiatives. It is also one of the main enabling factors required for high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish.

On top of this, Bhutan is increasingly using the internet for a lot of services from basic communication to paying ones bills online.

However, all of it can come crashing down if any natural disaster or other factors impact Bhutan’s main fiber-optic lines running close to each other in the narrow Siliguri corridor.

These are two lines from Phuentsholing and another two from Gelephu which supply Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell. They eventually pass close to each other in the narrow Siliguri area.

In fact, this is also what international IT companies pointed out when Bhutan went around the world asking IT companies to build Data Centers in Bhutan based on our cheap electricity, cool climate and political stability.

This is also holding back other kinds of international ICT investments in Bhutan which can generate not only ICT jobs but also higher quality tech innovation and jobs.

The vulnerability of Bhutan’s ICT sector due to this issue was also pointed out when Bhutan’s was building its IT Park, including by Indian IT companies. There is also a higher risk of failure when depending on a single area route as international companies cannot afford to have downtime or be disconnected.

The technical issue is that since the fiber-optic lines run so close to each other through Siliguri, Bhutan 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.

Endless requests from Bhutan

The initial request from Bhutan was a new line from Bangladesh from Cox Bazar through India into Bhutan.

In June 2011 the then MoIC minister Lyonpo Nandalal Rai wrote to the Bangladesh minister for Post and Telecommunications, Jauddin Ahmed Raju, requesting consideration by Government of Bangladesh to connect Bhutan via Cox’s Bazaar.

A few months later in August 2011 the MoIC minister met with India’s minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal who acknowledged the importance of this connectivity for Bhutan and agreed to consider the issue.

Again in September 2011 the MoIC minister wrote to his Indian counterpart requesting him to start discussions to connect to Cox’s Bazaar via Tripura in India.

Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry then followed up the matter in early 2012 again based on the MoIC minister’s proposal.

In May 2013 Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell were asked to discuss with their counterparts in India in getting in a line from Bangladesh.

However, by September 2013 both companies informed the government that their counterparts were not willing to bring in another line into Bhutan and the rates were too high.

In April 2014 under the instructions of former Prime Minister Lyonchhen Dasho Tshering Tobgay the MoIC sent a letter to the MFA asking it to take up the matter with the Indian Embassy in Bhutan.

In June 2014 both the Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) were once more asked to take up with their counterparts in India to connect Bhutan through Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh on an urgent basis.

The companies again got back a month later in July 2014 saying their Indian counterparts are not willing and it did not make commercial sense.

In the same month the cabinet instructed the MoIC to write to the MFA asking it to make a priority request (to India) to initiate the cross border connectivity to Bhutan and the North East region of India.

The MoIC Minister Lyonpo D.N Dhungyel in September, 2014 discussed the issue with his counterparts Minister of Communications and IT, India, Ravi Shankar, and Minister of Telecom and Posts, Bangladesh Abdul Siddique.

Bhutan was assured 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.

The MoIC minister again followed up on November 2014, with Ravi Shankar, during the sidelines of a multilateral event in Busan, South Korea.

Bhutan in August 2016 saw the visit of the the Bangladesh Minister of Telecom and Posts Tarana Halim who assured Bangladesh’s support for connectivity from Cox’s Bazaar.

She requested for the MoIC minister to attend Digital World to be conducted in Dhaka, Bangladesh from 19-22 Oct 2016 to take the initiative forward.

In September, 2016 a seven-member technical team comprising of Bhutan Telecom, Tashi Cell and BPC led by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication visited Bangladesh to carry out feasibility on the connectivity routes to Bhutan via Cox’s Bazaar through India. The team also looked at options on bandwidth and met with relevant Bangladeshi stakeholders and visited the cable-landing station at Cox’s Bazaar.

A delegation led by Lyonpo D.N Dhungyel attended Digital World 2016 from 19-25th October. At the sidelines, Lyonpo took the opportunity to discuss Cox’s Bazaar initiative with his counterpart and paid a visit to Cox’s Bazaar to express Bhutan’s seriousness on the initiative.

There was communication on the issue in 2017 again but again like in the past there was no concrete development on the ground.

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.

Before 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.

However, after nine years of requests and communications at the government and even ministerial levels by three elected governments and three MoIC ministers there has not been much progress in improving Bhutan’s IT redundancy.

Despite assurances

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.

This is while the Indian company called Jio (Reliance) in Guwahati, Assam offers 100 MBPs per month with 150 GB Data at only Nu 699 a month.  Airtel offers the same deal at Nu 799 in the Indian city of Kolkata in West Bengal.

Bhutan currently buys at around Nu 700 per MBPs per month from India through the Siliguri corridor.

Bhutan Telecom currently charges Nu 4500 per month for 1 MBPs for a leased line with no GB limit.

It also charges Nu 312,624 per month for 100 MBPs leased line with no GB limit.

So the end result is that while Bhutan’s original request to gets its own line from Bangladesh went nowhere the line now being theoretically being offered by Indian companies is priced too high to make it viable.

According to a source, Indian officials have informally informed Bhutan that as long as Bhutan does not bring in Bangladesh, they will provide the third International gateway connectivity.

The Bhutanese side wants to get the third international gateway for fiber-optic cable provided that it can have a high degree of reliability. Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell are apprehensive about signing any agreement with the state owned BSNL in India due to reliability issues.

The other aim for the Bhutanese side is to get good prices which are competitive in the region and can bring down internet prices.

The Telcos

The Bhutan Telecom CEO Karma Jurme said that the rate being asked by Indian counterparts is too high. He said that if there is a government to government agreement then it can become cheaper or the other alternative for the government is to provide subsidies to get the third line.

He said that currently Bhutan’s international lines exit via Mumbai and Chennai and so this proposed line would be the third international gateway.

He said that while the Telecom companies in Bhutan buy at a cheaper rate of around Nu 700 per MBPs per month from India the charges goes higher within Bhutan due to infrastructure and administrative costs and a lower density of users.

He said Bhutan Telecom has two lines of 21 GBPs line through Phuentsholing and Gelephu but even at peak hour traffic the full usage is only around 70 percent though it is going up.

Tashi Cell’s General Manager Ganga R. Sharma said the problem with the current set up is that a link with Bangladesh currently involves too many players from Bangladesh and India and so when even the Indian players want to keep a high margin the line becomes unviable.

He agreed that redundancy will definitely be greatly reduced if Bhutan can get the third line.

In terms of physical infrastructure he said the current Indian line from Bangladesh has come from Agartala to Guwahati and maybe coming to Bongaigaon near Gelephu.

Tashi Cell has a 20 GBPs capacity with two lines of 10 GBPs each and the usage is only around 6 GBPs.

He said that Tashi Cell got the second line from Gelephu to ensure that even if one lines goes down another will be functional for its customers.

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