ThimphuTech was the first technology blog in Bhutan. We started writing it in 2009, just as broadband and mobile internet started to take off. (Although internet in Bhutan was launched in 1999, it was either super-slow or super-expensive, and was only used by a selected few).

In the blog, we wrote about technology and food, but also about plenty of other stuff. The blog became popular and influential in Bhutan. A companion bi-weekly column -- Ask Boaz -- was published for many years in the Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper. (The complete Kuensel columns are available as an ebook, Blogging with Dragons).

We stopped updating the blog when we left Bhutan in 2014, but the information within the posts can still prove useful, and thus we decided to keep it online.

We thank all our readers.
Tashi Delek,
Boaz & Galit.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Farewell, Bhutan (K2 #87)

When I first landed in Paro six years ago, little did I know that 2008 would turn out to be an auspicious year that would be remembered in Bhutanese history as a year of tremendous events and tectonic changes: His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, was crowned; the first ever elections for the national assembly took place; a democratically-elected government began ruling; and the constitution was enacted.

Significant technological changes engulfed the country as well: In 2008, both broadband and mobile internet services were introduced in Bhutan for the first time. These two technologies signalled the start of a new era in ICT. No longer did Bhutanese need to connect using ancient dial-up modems and wait long minutes (or even hours) to read email, surf the web, or download documents. During the same period, global technological innovations that changed the world took place. Twitter was launched in 2006. Facebook was opened to (almost) everyone a few months later. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007; the first Android-based phone saw light the following year. The combination of global and local developments - social media, smartphones, and faster and cheaper access - has had a rapid and profound effect on Bhutanese society.

Back in 2008, fast internet was too expensive for most Bhutanese: the monthly package for a slow 256 Kbps broadband line - which included a “generous” 0.5 GB of data - cost Nu 1000 and would entail paying Nu 3000 for each additional GB. Today’s standard broadband connections are 8 times faster and 30 times cheaper. If flight technology advanced at the same pace, you would fly from Paro to Bangkok for Nu 700 and reach Suvarnabhumi in 20 minutes...

It was thrilling to experience the incredible changes that took place over the last 6 years: examples include the international internet capacity increasing dramatically to 5 Gbps; more and more government services becoming available online; a very active blogging scene with writers, such as Passu, receiving more than 1000 page views a day and having a voice heard within and outside Bhutan; politicians and journalists skillfully using social media including a Prime Minister with more than 34,000 Facebook “Likes” and 8,000 Twitter followers; a small but promising start of local apps, for example, the beautiful Zakar app commissioned by the Dratshang Lhentshog; and the launch of iSchool, an initiative to tackle the shortage in teachers by using remote classroom technology.

Along with these wonderful developments, challenges abound. I list a few challenges that deserve careful attention going forward, if the goal is to embrace progress while actively supporting an adaptable, healthy and forward-looking society and culture.

The broadband divide: While urban dwellers are increasingly enjoying faster and cheaper internet connectivity, accessing the web in rural areas is often next to impossible. Mobile broadband technologies have the potential to significantly narrow the access gap between these two increasingly growing-apart segments of society. How? By skillful deployment of fast 3G in all gewogs, as well as guaranteeing that cheap devices are available to all. A recent unfortunate decision made by BICMA, the body in charge of regulating the telecom providers, has made cheaper Indian smartphones unusable for 3G in major Bhutan localities. This in effect helped widen the gap instead of narrowing it. In the future, important decisions affecting society and individuals must be carefully scrutinized.

Four years ago I received a phone call from Kuensel reporter Gyalsten K. Dorji. He had an idea for me: write a regular tech column in the Kuensel’s K2 magazine. As all things internet and mobile were still a novelty to many in Bhutan, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge by answering readers’ questions. The first “Ask Boaz” column was published three years ago on November 6, 2010. This is the 87th and last column. I am honoured to hand over this space to Lama Shenphen who will be providing Buddhist-themed answers to youth-related questions. Readers are encouraged to submit questions to

Hi-tech industry: The launch of the much-awaited, World Bank-supported Thimphu TechPark, with its failure to jumpstart a hi-tech IT industry, was a stark reminder that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work. While the lack of speedy and reliable internet connectivity certainly hasn’t helped, the main issue has been the lack of top-notch talent. A thriving IT industry requires the best and brightest to compete globally. Computer programming can be taught at primary school level, and high school toppers in science and math must be directed and encouraged to study computer science and computer engineering (but not “computer applications”) at top universities. A handful of successful IT startups can create employment opportunities even outside of ICT, in fields such as e-agriculture, media, music, health, travel, and education.

Effect on society: No one is certain how living in the “always-connected” age - the result of the addictive combination of mobile internet and smartphones - affects our psyche as individuals, as well as a society. This is research in progress, and we are the ultimate guinea pigs. But given the thoughtful and very careful emphasis that Bhutan places on the effects of development on its culture and well-being, this must be carefully considered. Bhutan cannot - and should not - avoid these developments, but leadership and citizens must be constantly mindful of how technology affects us. As the Buddha said, “Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.”

Boaz Shmueli was a faculty member and co-director of the Rigsum Research Lab at the Rigsum Institute of IT & Management, 2008-2014.

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