It wasn’t that long ago (September 2015) that APNIC’s direct membership reached 5,000 with the addition of Bluewave Broadband Ltd from Myanmar. In just over a year, APNIC has now welcomed its 6,000th direct Member, NANO, from Bhutan.
— Paul Wilson (@apnicdg) November 29, 2016
In light of this recent addition, APNIC invited its newest Member from the Land of Happiness about the challenges and opportunities it faces in the rapidly developing economy.
Internet development a challenge in Bhutan
Given its remote and mountainous location in the Himalayas, which has made it very difficult to build telecommunications infrastructure, and a deliberate policy of isolation, Bhutan underwent a cautious phased approach to its Internet infrastructure development, establishing its national infrastructure in 1999.
The Ministry of Communication’s Telecommunications division was given only three months to establish the basic infrastructure – which they successfully did – so “when it did come, it came with a bang” (Sangey Tenzing, former Director of the Telecommunications division).
The first ever Internet service – DrukNet, now owned by Bhutan Telecom – was inaugurated in June 1999. Later that year, it became an APNIC Member and applied for its first block of IPv4 address space – 126.96.36.199/19.
With a population of only 750,000, comprising mainly subsistence farmers, around 39.8% (295,000) have access to the Internet. Fixed broadband penetration has increased moderately from a relatively small base of 2.3% in 2012 to nearly 4% in 2016. However, this is predicted to grow over the next five years, with the Bhutan government awarding a second national mobile license to Tashi InfoComm Ltd, who has provided the necessary competition under the branding TashiCell to stimulate this growth. In 2016, TashiCell held a 30% share of the mobile subscriber base.
Smaller players entering the market
As a recently established start-up, NANO is focused on providing managed security and enterprise services to corporate customers and is currently in the process of setting up the infrastructure to be a fully operational Internet Service Provider within the first quarter of 2017.
Founded by Managing Director, Tshering Norbu, NANO has grown quickly and now has 11 employees. “As a new start-up, we now have a core team who has, on average, 17 years’ technical experience, with backgrounds in IT, ISPs and telecommunications,” says Norbu.
Norbu says NANO has ambitious expansion plans. “In the next three to five years, we want to establish ourselves in Thimphu (capital and largest city of Bhutan) and then roll out our services to other major towns in Bhutan,” he says.
NANO has already begun taking advantage of the benefits of APNIC membership, with staff attending APNIC conferences and APNIC training. “I’ve found APNIC conferences to be a valuable source of learning and highly value the content provided. I look forward to attending whenever possible,” says Norbu.
The networking with other operators has been of particular importance. “We always look to other service providers to learn from them, and the conference is one of the best platforms to establish these networks,” he says.
There are still challenges
While there has been steady growth in Internet development and the emergence of more players in the market, there are still issues facing network operators.
“The high cost of Internet infrastructure and reliance on external partners and suppliers in almost all aspects is restricting Internet growth,” Norbu says.
However, he acknowledges that government support should help. “With the support of the government, Internet development in Bhutan should progress at a reasonable pace and on equal footing with other developing economies.”
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