Frontline World

When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck welcomed television and the Internet into Bhutan in June 1999, he cautioned his subjects that this modern technology could be “both beneficial as well as negative for the individual and the society.” Weeks later, a former government employee named Rinzy Dorji teamed up with a leading Bhutanese businesswoman, Dago Bida, to form Sigma Cable. Bida and her husband invested in the company, and together with Dorji began bringing the world of television to homes in and around the capital city, Thimphu.

Although television had been illegal in Bhutan until June 1999, many people would buy television sets and rent movies. A select few even bought expensive–and illegal–satellite dishes to tap into nearby India’s cable channels. But the legalization of cable TV in Bhutan meant more people would now have access to this once privileged medium. For about five dollars a month, Sigma Cable provides a package of 45 Indian and American channels, including CNN, MTV, The Discovery Channel and Cartoon Network. FRONTLINE/World’s Alexis Bloom and Tshewang Dendup spoke with Mr. Dorji at Sigma’s office in Thimphu in December 2000 about the challenges of meeting a growing demand for cable television, and how becoming Bhutan’s busiest “cable guy” has affected his family.

Why did you get involved in cable television?
I got a degree in Computer Science – software engineering. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to contribute more to society by using my knowledge in a better way, and contribute by serving the public. It was a disguised blessing that I moved from Sherubtse College, where I was a teacher for 7-8 years ago, to the government’s telecommunications department. There, I gained a lot of experiences in telecom, satellite transmission, switching, and so on. These experiences gave me a lot of advantages.

The BBS [Bhutan Broadcasting Service] television was launched on June 2nd [1999], and we were pretty sure that the government would allow cable television …There were many, many homes where they were using private supply dishes, and they were already receiving satellite signals from outside. We thought that perhaps we’d do service to the government and to the nation by removing all those dishes and keeping one common control, where we would come in and service the homes, and you would no longer require all those ugly dishes in every home in Thimphu…

photo of satellite dishHow do you reconcile your religious beliefs with this new technology?
I am a Buddhist follower. I believe that cable television will not in any way discredit my religion. Because Buddhism as such does not have a principle saying that you can’t enjoy television. Buddhism doesn’t say that enjoyment is a sin. You see, then, television brings entertainment to the home, it’s an enjoyment, we are making people happy. I think I’m working with my religion.

What’s the appeal of television here?
Owning a television set is, first of all, is an entertainment to the family. As you can see, in Thimphu there is one movie theatre here, which shows mostly Indian movies and it is very inconvenient for people to go there. So television, I feel, is a Bhutanese priority. To have a television and have entertainment in the home.

Do you remember the first time you saw a television?
The first television that I saw was somewhere in the late 80s, when I had an opportunity to go out of the country. That was when I went to Pakistan in 1986 or so…I had a difficult time even changing the channels. Because over here we had of course television sets and those days we used to watch only VCRs, cassettes already recorded. And we didn’t have television here and the only television I watched was when I went outside. I thought how is it possible that pictures were just coming out there without any tape being played there? Then of course, I tried to find out how it was coming… and then I said it is a wonderful technology, broadcasting from somewhere else and everybody could see on the television set.

People in Bhutan already had access to television sets and VCRs?
Before cable television was provided to our public, many people already had television sets in their homes. They had of course VCRs and a TV. So people were hiring cassettes from the video parlors and they were watching unedited, and uncensored, movies. Hindi movies, and also English movies. So normally a family, they used to spend not less than 800 Nu a month by hiring cassettes from the video parlors. So now the moment we stepped in, as a cable provider, now they have to spend only 200 Nu for a bouquet of television programs.

photo of satellite dishesHow did people first respond to having cable television service?
When we started the cable television, people were very, very happy, and they were really happy that when we made the connection to their homes, we would always be treated with delicious food, sometimes many cups of tea (laughs) and such was the acceptance by our customers. And now, wherever I go, people always look up to me and say ‘Oh he is Sigma, he’s operating Sigma.’ And if they have a problem, they talk to me, and if they need equipment, they also talk to me.

How many customers do you have?
We have registered about 1300 customers. But we will hopefully be able to connect by the end of this year about 2000 customers. We have done this work as a long-term thing. Because we know for a fact that the population in the city has been growing at about five percent in a year, so we estimate by another 5 years the population of Thimphu will exactly double. So we are hoping that in the future more homes will require television.

Who are your customers?
Our customers comprise different levels of society. Drivers, peons and even sweepers and plumbers, at the lowest rung of the society here, are also connected to our cable line. And they live in simple, one-room house, or sometimes a hut, a temporary shed, even they are also connected to our line. And another group is all the office people, also connected to our line. And then we have also provided cable services to the higher ranks of the society. Almost all kinds of people are connected. Some would have a big mansion. Three, four houses, maybe about twelve rooms, they are also connected to our cable line.

Do you ever get complaints from your customers?
Well, television is one of the services where they don’t want television signals to go off even for one minute. As soon as they have a problem, they will immediately call us up. And we will have to immediately attend it. But sometimes if they complain, at maybe around eight, when everybody has gone home, and it is too late, too dark, in those cases we always tell them that we are sorry, we can’t do it tonight. We’ll come the next morning and do it. Television has become almost like one of their daily routines, and they can’t live without it now, most of the people… If there’s a problem, then they would call me at home and I would have a sleepless night. Of course I try my best not to disclose my telephone number at home, but somehow they have come to know my telephone number already (laughs).

unwinding cableHow prepared are you to serve future customers?
We are ready for the future. The cables and the equipment we have used is all Internet-ready, meaning that we have kept in mind that in the future, if we are allowed to broadcast, we would be able to give live broadcasts over our cable. And every home can then view the live events going around in the city. And our infrastructure is ready for that. Just now, Bhutan Telecom is the only ISP providing Internet services to the people in the offices.

How many people work for you?
I have at the moment, around 15 people working for me. Some are as linemen, some are as drivers, some people are attending to telephone calls, complaints, new connections, and so on in the office, and one person is dedicated for accounting purposes.

installing cableHow difficult is it to install cable in people’s homes?
All my boys who are working for me are very dedicated in their work, and they do all the work, whatever I tell them to do. And some of the work is really dangerous. They may have to climb maybe a 50-meter tree without any branches. We do not have any safety equipment, belts and all those sorts of things that are available in the West. Here the boys literally (starts to laugh) climb, with their hands and feet, without any safety belts. And they climb up, and then we pull the cables, and we tie them up on the tree and then again take to another tree. All of my employees are not insured, so at the moment this is the way we are doing the work, and in the future maybe we’ll have safety regulations. I’m worried, but still what to do? We are a small country with very few people, and the boys have to do the work. If they don’t do, I have to do the work (laughs)…

installing cableDo you ever do any damage to people’s homes when you install cable lines?
Sometimes we do property damage where we have to compensate (laughs). For instance, pulling a cable line over a house, we may have to climb the ceilings, and sometimes the ceilings are so fragile that we, by mistake, step on the ceiling and brake it. And then we have to compensate in that case. And sometimes the cable might land very close to the high-voltage lines, the power lines, and by accident if it touches that high-voltage line, it accidentally might send high-voltage to the homes, and then burn their TVs, and then we have to compensate also. So, it’s very, very risky to the person, and also to the property.

Tell me about your family.
My mother-in-law, myself, my nieces and nephews, we stay together, in the same home. And my children, I have four: two sons, and two daughters, and they are now going to schools. I have been married for over 15 years now…

Do you think your children have an easier life than you did growing up?
My childhood had been very, very hard and difficult those days because basically, my parents practically didn’t have any money. I worked all the way up till I reached grade ten, and during 11 and 12, I did temporary services. I used to support myself and I had a very difficult time. And compared to my children these days, they have everything at their doorstep and they don’t have to worry about food. They live in a good house. We can provide them good food, nutritious foods, and during our time we didn’t have good food. Whatever we were given we used to eat. I could not stay like my children, who are staying at home and watching television and doing little housework. Those days we used to do lots of hard work. We used to go and collect firewood. We used to go and tend to our cows… Our schedule used to be very tight even if we were at home. But nowadays, because of development, the children enjoy and have a better life than we had.

photo of Rinzy DorjiHow has your business affected your family?
Since I took this business, I have been involved very actively in the laying of the cable infrastructure and also the control equipment and also establishing public relations with the customers. I’ve been extremely busy, and I have very little time for my family. And of course, my family keeps on complaining that ‘You have no holiday, you always keep on working.’ But then I find it a priority to have the cable infrastructure in place first and then have all of the set-up ready before I can relax a bit. I have family in mind, and of course, I always tell them it’s going to pay off in the future, that they can reap the benefits of what I have been doing.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I usually get up around 7 o’clock in the morning. And then I dress, have breakfast and I come to the office around eight thirty. And then I see that all my cable linemen and technicians all are gathered here. And then I assign jobs, what to do for the day. And then I send them off to the work. And to places where my attention is required, I personally go there and work together with that set of people. And make sure that everything is done properly. Then we stay until around six, and if we complete our work by six, then we get off. But sometimes, if the infrastructure is left exposed and we haven’t finished the work by 6, then what we do is we can even go until around 11 or 12 midnight, trying to finish the work, and have it done properly so that damages won’t be done by other people.

installing cableYou must be tired by the end of the day.
Yes, I am very tired by the end of the day, but I make sure again when I reach home, I go to the control room, see that everything is working properly. And then I go uh, to my room, and try to freshen up a little bit. And relax, and again, see some news, BBC, CNN and so on. And try to keep myself updated, because we don’t get a chance to see television ourselves during the day (laughs).

What do you hope your children will learn from you?
Education is the single most important thing that I can give to my children. So after finishing my office day and coming back to the home, I always used to teach them mathematics, maybe some physics, and some computer. But since I started cable television work, I have had very little time to attend to their studies and I don’t know how they are doing (laughs). And I have been extremely busy and of course, my family has always been scolding me not giving attention to my children’s education. But I always tell them that having a business, if it is successful, this is their bread and butter, it’s not for me. They can always come in, and take over the business from me. Because after some time I will be too old to manage everything (laughs) so they will have to come in and help me out.

It sounds like yours is not a typical family business.
Yeah, it is unlike other businesses that are done as a family business. This cannot be done as a family business. Because this is a partnership, and all accounting, all management aspects, everything has to be done in discussion with my partner. And it has to be managed professionally. So we have to maintain all the accounts, proper records, everything, so that by the end of the year, we’ll have to audit everything and see what is the loss, what is the profit….

How do you think you have contributed to society?
Cable television has contributed quite a lot to the society because many people could not afford to have television viewing in their homes, because they couldn’t buy the satellite dishes and the equipment associated with it for their personal purposes. Only a few individuals were enjoying such a thing, because they could afford it. So we came, we stepped in, and we provided this cable television service, and now you can see there is a fair distribution of entertainment between the higher society and the lower society. So now basically, every person, whether he’s a senior government official or a big businessman, or a driver, or a peon working in an office, or a sweeper, janitor, they can all watch the same number of programs just for 200 Nu, which is affordable to everyone. And that is one of our contributions…

Sigma Cable Service signThen another contribution is to the children. Because they do not have entertainment at home, many children tend to go out of the homes, and then do things that are not desired. Like vandalism, fighting, drinking, all of those things. Now, since there’s entertainment in the home, most of the children are staying at home. And this is another kind of contribution, that we curb such kind of social nuisance… Children are now hooked to the TV, they have entertainment at home. So this is another contribution that we make…

We can also step in and provide Internet services to the society. And that will be also another contribution. We can relieve the telecom industry by offering services to people where they cannot reach…

Another contribution we can make is by having a production unit set up where we can give our own local programs, SIGMA programs, to our viewers… We are thinking firstly to improve our image as a cable provider as well as a local broadcaster. We are thinking of having tutorial lessons for primary education, for small children, for nursery education and give a live broadcast to our viewers…

What role do you think you’ve played in bringing television and the Internet to Bhutan, and how do you feel about these new advances in technology?
I see myself as one of the players in trying to bring the latest technology that is available in the world, to our very small nation here…And that kind of benefit is being brought to their doorsteps. And I see myself as very fortunate, and I see myself as one of the movers able to bring such kind of technology benefit to our people…

tv screen with Sigma customer infoI believe myself that we cannot turn back. Technology is such, once we have come to that kind of stage, we cannot look back and go back. We always have to move forward, and move ahead. We cannot be very secluded, and become isolated. We have to open up, we have to believe in the good values that can come from technological advances and at the same time, we should also try to protect and preserve some of our good social values…

Some advocates say that television is bad, but it is all depends upon upbringing, how you discipline yourself. There are some programs that are very educative…But of course like with the Internet, if you don’t use it properly there are lot of bad things that can come. But if you use it properly there is lot of information that can help you, in terms of furthering your career or in terms of gaining more knowledge that you didn’t have access to before.

So in the same way cable television also provides some new information that people never knew before. There are bad things of course. Children may get hooked on to some programs that are actually not good for viewing. But as a cable operator I can’t selectively give programs because the demand is such that some parents would like to have some programs, which are not good for others. So I have to balance my programs in such a way that every viewer is being satisfied.

Are you satisfied with the work you do?
Yes, I am very satisfied with what I’m doing. I feel that my knowledge, what I have gained over the years, working for the government, has not been wasted. I’ve been able to translate it into a meaningful way, and also serve the society, and this is self-gratifying, really.

Life for Rinzy Dorji has switched into high gear since he spoke with FRONTLINE/ World Rinzy now chairs the Association of Private Cable Operators (APCO), which was formed in Bhutan to take a common stand against foreign channel providers suspected of arbitrarily hiking prices. The APCO also advocates media laws to combat high license fees and heavy taxation.

Dorji’s company, Sigma Cable, has expanded into the city of Paro, the location of Bhutan’s only airport. Today Sigma serves 4,000 clients and employs 22 people. Dorji is also planning to use fiber optic cables for his service, which would dramatically improve the quality of transmission. Dorji says he is considering expanding his business to become an Internet service provider.