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Bhutan plans first unattended phone booths

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Bhutan has belatedly joined the 20th Century telecoms revolution with plans to install the remote Himalayan kingdom's first unattended public phone booths.

Existing phone booths in Bhutan (population: two million) require operator supervision. But now the country is going hi-tech, with plans to introduce phone boxes that allow punters to make their own calls.

Local paper Kuensel agonises about the effect the new phone booths will have on Bhutan's telephone operator workforce. Meanwhile, it charts the progress in getting the technology hooked up.

"BT [Bhutan Telecom] has placed five unmanned booths, three along Thimphu main thoroughfare and two at the road safety and transport authority office. The telephones inside the booths are yet to be installed but it will be done any day now say BT officials," the paper reports.

Bhutan Telecom should not, of course, be confused with BT plc. After all, our own BT would never be implicated in a delay in installing telecoms equipment.

Perish the thought.

Getting back to the story, the finances of the whole project are already been questioned.

Kuensel reports: "The unmanned booth will require users to buy BT's pre-paid 'scratch' cards that was launched several months ago and has almost gone out of public memory."

It seems that the good people of Bhutan have gone for a US-style system rather than the smart-card based calling cards commonplace in Europe.

"Customers will first have to dial 800, enter the card number, personal identity number (revealed upon 'scratching' the back of the card) and dial the desired number. An automated voice informs the caller of the balance value of the card," the paper reports.

"Using the call cards will be cheaper because the existing public booths charge a 30 per cent commission on calls."

And there are other advantages too. The new unattended phone booths are not aimed at putting existing manned phone kiosks out of business, rather they will provide an "additional services to its [BT's] clients during emergencies when the public booths are closed and sleeping."

Err, yes, we think we see what you mean.

But wait. Even before the unattended phone boxes go operational, there are already concerns about vandalism.

When street lights are broken and destroyed BT officials expect unmanned booths may be vandalised. So there's no immediate plan for a wider roll-out of the technology beyond the nation's capital city.

"Right now we want to see how it works in Thimphu," a cautious BT official told Kuensel. ®

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