As of 2007, there were 6000 dial-up users and 90 organizations having leased-line Internet connectivity according to Druknet. The estimated number of Internet users in Bhutan has grown from only 500 users in 2000 to 30,000 in 2007.
“The increase number of Internet users in the country can be considered a “digital indicator” of the adoption of ICT society, and the integration into the global networked economy.” (Bon 2007)
Compared to some of the countries in Asia, Bhutan has shown higher per capita growth in terms of Internet user penetration in the country [Table 2].
Table 2: Population per country, number of Internet users, use growth and penetration: percentage of internet users relative to total population in few countries in Asia: (source: Internet World Stats, 2007)
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE ICT SECTOR
Since ICT is a very new phenomenon, there are many challenges faced by the ICT sector in Bhutan. The following are some of the few prominent challenges:
Lack of Awareness and Understanding
The people have limited understanding of what ICT can do in developing the nation. However, there are signs of improvement in the awareness of ICT among the educated lot through the Government initiatives. However, there is still the need to make people understand the role of ICT in development. As an example, at Sherubtse College, in 2001 there were only 20 computers in total. Moreover, these were mainly for the courses that required computer access. Only one of the faculty members (Head of the Department of Computer Science) had a computer with dial-up Internet access. Currently, this same institute has more than 250 computers all connected with leased-line Internet, and one of the computer laboratories is open to all the students without differentiating the disciplines. Despite this progress, there are still a handful of students who do not make use of this laboratory and take advantage of the IT facilities.
Lack of ICT Expertise and Skills
The sector faces an acute shortage of skilled ICT manpower in the country. At present there are few institutes that offer degree courses in the field of ICT. Sherubtse College is the main institute under the RUB that offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science (B.Sc. in CS). So far only 94 students have graduated with a B.Sc. in CS or other ICT related fields since 1999 from this institute. The Royal Institute of Management also offers Diploma and Certificates courses. Furthermore, there are only a few private institutes which offer Certificate and Diploma courses related to ICT. All of these institutes are facing a shortage of national faculty members in the Sciences, especially in the field of Computer Science. Indeed, about 70% of the faculty members in the Department of Computer Science in Sherubtse College are contracted from India. As far as the training of future ICT professionals and educators is concerned, at the most approximately 30 to 40 students would be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the field of ICT each year.
Lack of Private Sector Participations
Given the capital-intensive nature of ICT investment, Bhutan currently lacks adequate financial infrastructure to encourage private sector participation. There are 44 private IT firms [A special report, MoIC, 2007, p.6]. Out of these, about 90% of the firms are simply hardware vendors. Additionally, there are about 19 private training institutes in operation offering Certificates and Diploma courses in IT. However, these institutes lack the capital and human resources to provide quality training and offer advanced-level courses. Moreover, all of these institutes are located in urban areas only, thereby making it difficult for students living in remote regions of the country to access these facilities.
Poor Research and Development Initiatives
There is currently no policy at the institute level or government level to facilitate research and development in the field of ICT. Nowhere in the BIPS document is there any mention of research in the field of ICT [BIPS, 2004]. Due to the lack of ICT-related research in the country, there are problems in the implementation of ICT projects. Thus, there is a need to carry out research in the field of ICT to facilitate development of generic and industry related solutions.
Lack of Budget for ICT Sector
Since the country has only modest financial resources, there has not been much investment made to ICT until recently, even though the government’s stated goal is to bring the country to the forefront of technology.
Even given the modest budget, poor allocation of funds is an additional problem, one caused largely by a lack of commitment from the leaders in the ICT sector.
Limited Internet Access
Use of Internet Technology remains limited among the general public due to several factors: (1) Most cannot afford to own personal computers; (2) there are not many public Internet access centers for those without personal computers; (3) the high price of network connectivity is a barrier to widespread public Internet usage. The cost of computers and Internet charges are relatively high [Table 2 and 3] as compared to the earnings of the people in the country. The salary as per 2006 records for a minister is Nu. 39,500 per month [Bhutan Portal, 14 May 2008], whereas the daily wage for laborers is Nu. 100 per day (~Nu. 3,000 per month).
For public access, there are about 35 Internet Cafe license holders but only 19 are currently operational [MoIC, Special Report, 2007]. These cafes are mostly concentrated in the urban areas thereby leading to a digital divide in the country between the urban and rural populations.
Poor Content in the National Language
Although the medium of instruction in schools in Bhutan is English, there are still many monastic institutions both private and public where the instruction of medium and the textbooks are in the National Language, Dzongkha. Besides these institutes, there are many local people who can read and write only in Dzongkha. However, Bhutan does not have any internet sites which are published in Dzongkha. Thus, the Internet users in Bhutan fully depend on English to publish or to read online information.
Poor Local Content
As ICT is relatively new to the Bhutanese people, not much about Bhutan and its history is fully digitized. There are not many sources of information regarding Bhutan on the world-wide web. In some cases, even the available online information is found to be riddled with inaccuracies.
Difficulties in Deploying Internet
To make ICT facilities affordable to each and every citizen, the price for an Internet connection should be reasonable. However, the price for Internet connections in Bhutan is excessively high due to several factors. Until recently, there was a monopoly in providing Internet Services - Druknet was the only ISP in the country up to 2005. Although Bhutan has now about seven Internet Service Providers, most are limited to specific regions of the country. Only Druknet provides services to all parts of the country, so it still has an effective monopoly over Internet connectivity in Bhutan. Apart from the leased-line services provided by the Druknet, it also provides dial-up Internet access or DSL/broadband connections (from 2008). Druknet’s monthly tariff for Leased-Line [Table 3] and Broadband [Table 4] Internet connections are given below. The dial-up connection is free of cost, though local telephone charges still apply.
Table 3. Druknet’s monthly tariff for DSL broadband (source: www.telecom.net.bt )
Table 4. Druknet’s monthly tariff on leased lines (source: www.telecom.net.bt )
In addition to the high price of an Internet connection from the service providers, the costs for operation and maintenance are also high. This is to due to poor ICT management and the lack of skilled human resources in the country. Reliability in the internet connection itself is also lacking. This is mostly due to the unreliable power supply in the country. Although considered rich in hydroelectric power, Bhutan does not have reliable electricity, especially in the eastern region of the country.
ICT IN EDUCATION
As of 2007, there are 502 schools which include Community Primary through Higher Secondary schools, as well as ten Tertiary Institutes and six vocational training institutes. Currently, there is incomplete information available regarding the level of ICT education included in the general curricula at the High School level. However, there is a constant effort from the government to create ICT awareness among the schools in the rural areas.
“Hundred community primary schools were provided with two computers and a printer each, with free Internet facilities for a year where feasible. One teacher in each of these schools was trained in basic computing skills….” [A special report, MoIC, 2007].
The 10th five year plan (draft) gives emphasis on the usage of ICTs in the schools. One of the objectives and targets of the 10th five year plan is to enhance the quality of education to achieve competency in languages including ICT, comparable to international standards (MoE, 2008). The draft 10th five year plan of the ministry of education has the following plans on ICT in schools:
All tertiary institutes under the RUB have access to the Internet. The RUB gives much importance to ICT in its curricula. All the institutes under the RUB have a module on ICT irrespective of the disciplines. There is a plan to establish a University Wide Area Network which will connect all institutes under RUB by the end of 2008. This will facilitate information sharing among the member institutes. Although the tertiary institutes do benefit from ICT as they have Internet access, there are still difficulties in having an adequate number of computers in comparison to the total strength of the users in the institutes.
“Ensuring institution and curricula to provide ICT skills at all levels, from technical, professional and entrepreneurial skills for industry and government to basic ICT literacy for all”. (ICT White Paper, DIT 2003)
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
As ICT has become an indispensable tool for development, there is hardly any country in the world that has not embraced ICT as one method to enhance prosperity and happiness. Bhutan has developed mechanisms and policies to develop ICT’s capabilities and to harness its power to accelerate social and economic growth in the country. However, inherent structural problems and inadequate technological and financial capabilities can restrain a country’s capability to develop and diffuse ICT for development. Most of the policies and guidelines on ICT in underdeveloped countries are modeled on examples from developed countries without proper consideration for the country-specific challenges. Consequently, the underdeveloped countries may fail to take full advantage of the benefits from their ICT infrastructure and capability. Therefore, each developing country needs a better understanding of its specific needs to ensure that it derives maximum benefit out of ICT. The following are the key factors which the authors feel important for promoting ICT, among many others.
At present almost all ICT consultancy work is done by foreign expatriates. In the process there is less opportunity for the Bhutanese people to develop their skills. It would be beneficial to the government if ICT consulting work is done as collaboration between Bhutanese nationals and foreign experts.
It is very important for all schools to be introduced to ICT related curriculum. The acquisition of ICT literacy and skill in the country will depend on how much ICT related curriculum is introduced in primary and secondary schools as well as in tertiary education. ICT should also be properly applied as a tool to improve basic as well as advanced education.
At present there is very minimal research done in the field of ICT in the country. To promote ICT, research and development should be linked with the universities and other centers for research. A major goal of this research should be in providing direction to the country for properly implementing ICT infrastructure development given its specific needs and challenges.
ICT infrastructure should be in place throughout the country. This should be affordable to the general public in terms of cost, and all communities should have access to ICT. The price for Internet connections should be held at a reasonable level, to be negotiated by the government with the ISPs in the country.
Few websites can be seen which are published in the national language, Dzongkha. Additionally, the content on the World Wide Web is very poor regarding Bhutan. Therefore, the government should initiate projects on how the country can digitalize and publish its information and history on the web. This will further encourage people to use ICT for learning and research purposes.
It would be useful for those living outside the urban centers if the Government could provide Public Internet Access Centers in rural Dzongkhags.
Each Dzongkhag has its own Local Area Network at present. But there is no connection with the other Dzongkhags. A Dzongkhag Wide Area Network can be useful for sharing information among Dzongkhags as well as with a central headquarters. The government also needs to promote the application of ICT by introducing e-government, e-health, e-business and e-tourism.
The majority of the Bhutanese population lives in rural areas. Therefore, it is important to promote access to ICT services throughout the country, especially in schools in the rural areas.
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Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the authors, with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings. Original article at: http://ijedict.dec.uwi.edu//viewarticle.php?id=577&layout=html