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 expensiveand illegalsatellite 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
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 , 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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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)...
you ever do any damage to people's homes when you install cable
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.
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...
you think your children have an easier life than you did growing
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
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.
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.
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).
do you hope your children will learn from you?
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.
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....
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
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
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
role do you think you've played in bringing television and the
Internet to Bhutan, and how do you feel about these new advances
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...
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.
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.