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Technology and E-Centers in the Kingdom of Bhutan

By William Koch


Most people know at least a little bit about our technology and media communications here in the United States. Nearly everyone has a cell phone, TVs, and anyone with a laptop can walk two feet to their local Starbucks and get on the Internet. Most people, however, know little about the media and technology in other parts of the world.


Take, for instance, Bhutan. This country is located in Southeast Asia, and is relatively small. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. Maybe I just didn’t pay attention in geography class, but I had never even heard of the country before I met a native. The country is mostly rural, and scattered across hills and mountains. To put this in perspective, in populated areas of Bhutan, only about 15 out of every 100 people owns a landline telephone. In rural areas, only one out of every 100 people has a landline telephone.


Bhutan

Bhutan was the last country in the world to institute television as well—a mere nine years ago, in June of 1999. Global television was not allowed into the country until six months after that.


So what does this mean for things like Internet, cell phone usage, and media technology? I didn’t really think much would exist, but that’s when globalization comes into the picture, even in places like tiny Bhutan. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2006 there were 31,500 main telephone lines, but 82,100 people had cell phones. Cell phones outnumber traditional phones almost 3 to 1.


One of the reasons Bhutan is still so culturally rich and relatively unaffected by outside influence is because of the government’s strict tourism policy. Visitors have to be guests of the government, or travel to the country as tourists on a preplanned and approved trip. Independent travel is not allowed in the country for foreigners.


Although the country does want to retain its heritage, it struggles in many areas because of the lack of access to information. Microsoft is one of many companies helping out smaller countries that have little access to information, communications, and media. They are setting up small “e-centers,” that will be shared by small communities, under the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Project.


Bhutan, following in the footsteps of India and many other technologically-underdeveloped countries in Africa and around the world, recently instituted a plan to put these e-centers into 60 villages. The Bhutanese government hopes that this will better the lives of the people in the rural communities. The e-centers will hopefully get people information faster.


The people in the hills and small villages currently don’t get much outside information, if any. Most of what they do hear is through the radio, so you can imagine how much a project like this could help the people.


I talked to my friend Yangchen Dukpa, who is from Bhutan, to see what she thought about the project. Being a student herself, the first thing she thought of was education.


“I think it’s really good, actually,” she said. “Each state has an education system and schools, but outside of the capital there aren’t adequate libraries or Internet Cafes. This could greatly benefit students in rural areas, who have little or no access to information.”


My main concern with the project was that it would be detrimental to a country that is so deeply rooted in its culture. I brought this up to Yangchen, but she didn’t see any major problems with it.


“We do have transparency in news, but because the media is so young, it lacks infrastructure. That is why the government of Bhutan controls the media,” she commented, “because we still need a moral authority to keep our rich culture.”


In the last couple of years (after foreign television had been allowed into the country) many stations have been banned, including MTV and US wrestling because they were strongly affecting the country’s youngest generation. Yangchen feels that the e-centers won’t cause this kind of trouble.


“Stations like MTV were causing serious changes in the younger generation. They were affecting everything from the dress code to the language. Older children at the schools were injuring smaller ones because they were imitating wrestling moves they saw on TV.”


Sure, some people will argue this point until they are blue in the face, mainly because things like that happen here. However, in Bhutan’s culture, these sorts of things are a lot more detrimental to the culture. “You can notice a huge difference between the people my age [23] who grew up in Bhutan and the younger generation. We know our national language better, and have a lot of respect for our culture and traditions, including dress. After TV, kids started speaking more and more English, and dressing like the people they saw on TV.”


Yangchen doesn’t see these problems arising with the introductions of e-centers in Bhutan. “These e-centers could counteract what television is doing to the younger culture, and have a potential positive aspect to the country, as long as it is well monitored by the government.”


These e-centers will not just help children learn in the country. I asked Yangchen if she thought giving Internet access to these villages would impact the older people of society. “Bhutanese people are very rooted in their culture. Something that they look at on the Internet won’t hurt that,” she said.


I was also curious what she thought of Microsoft having a lot to do with the project. The reply I got surprised me. “We have a trust in Microsoft in Bhutan.”


Considering that, I’m 100% sure that they would take all of these issues into account before setting up a project like this, especially when dealing with the culture. She also added that there is virtually no weather information in Bhutan, and with a 90% agricultural society, simple things such as receiving weather forecasts have the potential to make an excellent impact on the country and its industries.


The centers will each have two computers and a printer. They will have 60 hours of Internet connectivity a month. Each center will also be given software grants, supplies, and training.


Considering that nine years ago Bhutan did not even have television, I find it astounding that they are already so beyond that, and setting up e-centers across the country. I was apprehensive of the project at first, but after talking to Yangchen, it is clear that the project has the potential to do a lot of good when it is set up this year.