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Ethnic minority commune enters the digital age
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Ethnic minority commune enters the digital age - 09-March-2009, 15:27

Vietnam’s first satellite is bringing about far-reaching changes in a remote border commune surrounded with forests and mountains.
In the dense forests and high mountains, echoes of the panflute are as natural as the chirping of birds.

Now, a new not-so-natural sound has been added to the mix. Ring tones.

In areas where encountering a local with a mobile phone was once as rare as the sighting of an endangered species, it is fast becoming commonplace for ethnic minority men and women to carry mobile phones in the pocket of their colorful clothing.

The development has its origins in space.

On June 7, 2008, the Lao Cai Telecommunications Company under the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group managed to receive signals from Vietnam’s first satellite, Vinasat-1. It then began transmitting signals to the phone operator in Y Ty Commune, the northern province of Lao Cai.

This made the commune, located at a height of over 2,000 meters above sea level and 75 kilometers from Lao Cai Town, become the country’s first border area to be covered by Vinasat-1.

It’s an understatement to say the lives of local people have changed since.

Doan Thi Gui, 70, speaks to her daughter in Lao Cai Town on the phone.

Ending the conversation, she says: “It is lucky that telephone lines now are stable. A couple of months ago, the signal would get cut in the middle of a call.”

In fact, it was only seven years ago that the commune received its first telephone landlines. And not many could afford a connection or pay the monthly fees. The lines were constantly busy, and it was not easy to make or answer a call.

However, Vinasat-1 began covering the area, and wireless telephones can now be found in almost every house. Residents of this commune are mainly minority people, including the Mong, Ha Nhi and Dao.

“My family now has three wireless telephones,” Gui says, adding that they cost her some VND200,000 (US$11.44) a month.

Phe Che Su, who lives in Ngai Tro Hamlet, says every house in his hamlet has a wireless telephone and service that is sponsored.

It is not only wireless telephones, but mobile phones that are common in this area now.

Mai Quang Tuan, a border guard working at the commune for more than two years, says previously the commune did not have a mobile phone network, so many of them could not use their mobile phones.

Nguyen Van Bien, another guard, adds they had to catch a motorbike taxi and go to another central commune to receive signals.

“Now the mobile phone signals are available here, so we can call our families and girlfriends whenever we are free,” Tuan said.

Gui now sells SIM cards. She adds that they are selling like hot cakes and “our turnover can reach millions of dong during promotion months of mobile phone operators.”

It is said that locals are getting into the habit of going to downtown markets not only to exchange goods but also for setting Mong songs as their mobile phones’ ring tones.

Trang A Lu, vice chairman of Y Ty Commune, says “Vinasat-1 has created a new face for the commune with 730 families and a population of over 4,000.”

Vinasat-1 was launched into orbit on April 19 last year, setting off the satellite age in Vietnam.

One of its missions is to provide telecommunication, Internet, radio and TV broadcasting services to every corner of the country, helping people in mountainous and remote areas have the same facilities as people in urban areas.

The $180 million satellite covers Vietnam, Laos, East Asian nations, India and Australia and has a projected lifespan of 15 years.
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