Wait again for free Wi-Fi and the Sungjoen app

Phub Dem

One of the government’s most popular promises has been to provide free Wi-Fi and develop a national social networking app, Sungjoen.

Running for four years now, the government has yet to implement the pledge.

According to the Minister of Information and Communications (MoIC), Karma Donnen Wangdi, the ministry is still exploring a suitable path for Starlink services and ways to make them operational.

He said it was difficult for a government agency to manage commercial agreements and manage the operations and maintenance of such deployments across the country.

He said, “The ministry is exploring local entities to advance this implementation keeping in mind the priorities and safeguarding the current and future interests of the country.”

The government has proposed establishing at least one Starlink Wi-Fi hotspot in each of the 1,044 chiwogs and 100 Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas through local internet service providers.

The cost is estimated at Nu 2.930 billion over five years.

Starlink is a SpaceX initiative to create a global broadband network using a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit.

The 2021 State of the Nation Report stated that the MoIC had offered 3,000 Starlink user terminals nationwide for free Wi-Fi and interested private users; creation of a Starlink gateway; Starlink must be licensed as an ICT Sector FDI (ISP) as per the requirement of Bhutan’s Communication and Information Media Act 2018.

The ministry also proposed that Starlink be licensed as a 100% FDI company, as this differs from what was stated in the 2019 FDI policy.

The report also states that the government has initiated the design of the Sungjoen app for home users. He said the app would be redeveloped to work as a universal modular platform with additional functionality to make or receive payments, provide G2C services and government notifications or announcements, among others.

Lyonpo said the MoIC conducted research on the economics and technical requirements for the development and operations of the platform. The results, he said, revealed that to establish the platform, the government would need to set up a system similar to that of WhatsApp, WeChat or Zoom, which requires large investments to manage thousands of transactions of reliably.

He said the platform also requires the establishment of online support services and would require national experts to develop and operate the core components to ensure reliable services. “The budget impact of the initiative on overall development and running costs over the years would be significant.”

Considering the government’s ultimate goal of reducing communication costs, Lyonpo said the ministry is exploring other options to achieve this goal by focusing on reducing connectivity costs.

“The ministry is working with regulators to identify solutions to reduce connectivity costs that will help the government make sensible investments and avoid crowding out technology innovation in the private sector,” Lyonpo said.

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