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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 09:28 GMT
Himalayan kingdom goes mobile
BBC ClickOnline's Richard Taylor reports from the mountainous Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan on the impact of the country's first mobile phone network.

Schoolchildren in Bhutan
A new generation will grow up with mobile phones
An ancient Buddhist ritual was recently performed in Bhutan, a land of tradition, to celebrate the launch of a most contemporary service.

Proud workers from Bhutan Telecom joined dignitaries to watch the country take its first steps into the mobile age.

There was barely a cellphone in sight, which betrays the significant fact that the coming of the mobile in this rural nation, some of whose citizens still use Morse code, really is momentous.

"If the world has adjusted itself why not Bhutan?" said Sangey Tenzing, Managing Director of Bhutan Telecom.

"This is going to improve the quality of life, the way things are run, enable people to do their business much more effectively and efficiently."

Expensive business

Thimpu, the capital, is one of the few places where the network is up and running, and it is the talk of the town.

Shop in Bhutan
We have had to rush to get more supplies of phones as we had run out of the previous stock that we had calculated
Passang Dorji, shop owner
At retail outlets, potential customers eye up phones which would happily stand up to scrutiny in far more developed markets.

They are far from cheap and call prices are out of reach of most Bhutanese. But being mobile is the latest status symbol for the aspiring classes, and so business is booming for vendors of the new equipment.

"We really didn't think it would take off so much because comparatively it is much more expensive to call mobile phones," said Passang Dorji, owner of the shop Eworld.

"In the last few weeks I have seen that people are rushing in for phones. We have had to rush to get more supplies of phones as we had run out of the previous stock that we had calculated."

"It's beyond everybody's expectations."

Until now Bhutanese people wanting a taste of mobility have had to rely on bulky and inelegant cordless phones connected to their landlines. For business people the mobile is a revelation.

"The old cordless phone has had its uses and it has definitely served me very well," said businesswoman Phub Zam.

"But the mobile phone would be much more convenient, I think, much lighter to use, and people would be able to contact me wherever I am in the country."

Early hiccups

Invariably there have been a few teething problems. There was such an initial rush to top up pre-paid accounts with credit that it crashed the automated computer system.

Village in Bhutan
The mobiles are out of the reach of many
There is a learning process that has to take place as well, because Bhutanese are expecting too much from their phones - the phones can deliver but the networks cannot.

For the 2,000 subscribers, there is a real danger of creating an expectations gap, which even officials acknowledge has to be closed quickly.

"There is no point having the equipment if you can't fully utilise it," said Communications Minister Lyonpo Leki Dorji.

"You have to have data and content in place, you have to have the proper infrastructure, like broadband, before you can use the latest mobile phone."

Infrastructure or no infrastructure, the fact is that for now the impact of mobile communications will be limited.

Life in rural Bhutan, home to most of the population, will remain largely untouched by this leap of technology.

Outside the cities life is basic and few people own any kind of phone, relying instead on central communication centres which use microwave links to direct traffic around the country.

Bhutan is a country where technology plays second fiddle to nature. Change happens at a glacial rate, but now at least it can proudly claim a small stake in the communications revolution.

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