Connected in Kathmandu: Complaints and Compliments

By Dinesh Wagle

Soon after Tihar celebrations were over in Kathmandu last week I was in Thamel with a colleague who was leaving the newspaper for good. As he took his bike to a nearby parking lot I stood a few metres away from the entrance of the Roadhouse Café. I started fiddling with my phone. As soon as I tapped on the email application of the iPhone it caught six WiFi signals in the area.  I was astonished.

Not in Khan Market or Connaught Place in New Delhi (where I have been living for the past two years) have I received so many signals at once. Not in Paharganj, Delhi’s Thamel, the backpacker’s ghetto. Not in Park Street, Kolkata or Colaba, Mumbai. I am aware that it will be a gross injustice to Kathmandu if I compare it with some of the biggest cities in India. Kathmandu has suffered tremendously at the hands of incompetent, quarrelling and power hungry politicians. The overall politics of Nepal has become so disgusting that Kathmandu, the capital, has no option but to cover its face in shame. Kathmandu is a humiliated city. Humiliated by its politicians and lazy bureaucrats who are unwilling to think out of box. On the other hand, Indian cities have prospered under the stability that the relatively functional democracy provides.

Kathmandu connection kathmandu post 14 Nov 2010
Kathmandu Post. 14/11/010

A few days later I was pillion riding on the bike of a colleague in Tinkune. He showed me a few signboards that advertised WiFi connections. One signboard read: “You have entered Subisu WiFi zone.” (Subisu is a cable Internet service provider.) One couldn’t have expected availability of such services in places like Tinkune until recently. Dozens of ISPs have come up in the past several months in Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal. Despite the bad politics the country has witnessed a silent revolution in telecommunication. We have installed a third generation mobile phone tower on a hill that is not very far from the Everest. Thank you, Ncell.

Subisu WiFi zone in Tinkune, Kathmandu
"You have entered Subisu WiFi zone," says the banner in Tinkune, Kathmandu.

But there is an irony. And that is glaringly visible in darkness. The country with second largest hydropower potential in the world has made the reputation of putting its citizens under up to 18 hours of load shedding a day. But the lack of power hasn’t dampened the desire of Kathmanduits to get connected. The reach of the Web is widening. More people have been connected to the Internet in Nepal in the past two years than in five years before that. Kathmandu, with offerings of services like WiFi on the one hand and life in darkness on the other, is sandwiched between modernity (progress) and stagnation (or even backwardness).

I have been eagerly waiting for Airtel, India’s largest mobile phone operator, to launch 3G service. Except a couple of government companies no private enterprise provides that service in India as of now. They are expected to do so in coming weeks when I expect to return to Kathmandu for good. But in Nepal 3G is available from Everest to Phulchowki. As much as I am happy with the availability of third generation service in limited areas of Kathmandu and Everest region I am annoyed with Nepal Telecom, the largest telecom service provider in the country, for not expanding the service as rapidly as it should have. I have never been a fan of NT because of its poor service and bad customer care. I keep asking to myself what stops NT from expanding its services. I am sure NT has an excuse ready. We are a society of excuse providers.

The NT offers mainly the GPRS connection (at a terrible speed) while it should have upgraded its services to enhanced GPRS called EDGE as the privately owned telecom operator Ncell has done.

Sometimes small things do matter a lot. Such things, at their best, make our lives significantly easier. I am a Twitter user. In India and some other countries like Iraq Twitter has collaborated with local telecom companies so that users can use their mobile devices to post and receive updates (or what Twitter calls tweets). Of course, the list of services and features—big and small—that are not available in Nepali market can be longer than the river Gandaki. For example, McDonalds, multilane roads and permanent dividers on the roads!

Every driver in Delhi thinks the road solely belongs to him and that they cannot move ahead without using the high beam light in the night. Traffic system is a huge mess but the permanent dividers and somewhat functional street lightings come as a great relief.

In Kathmandu the dysfunctional traffic lights are an eyesore. Their ineffectiveness creates a mess at intersections. One can ask: why are we not expanding our roads wherever it is possible and why can’t we install permanent dividers and traffic lights. All these are naïve questions and expectations, I know. You are equating me with one of those foreign returnees who seeks every good thing abroad in their own country. But comparisons with an Indian city, I believe, are legitimate. Although it is making rapid economic advances, India, by no means, is a first-world country.

I know we are a small market but that should not stop us from doing small things right to make our lives easier. Our small market might not encourage entrepreneurs to take the huge risks they take in big markets. Still, some people are doing it. Where else can you see advertisement of broadband WiFi connection in a society with up to 18 hours of load shedding? Despite all the shortcomings there are reasons for us to be optimistic.

This article first appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post.