Government Promise to Bury Cables

Posted on June 6, 2017 in Comment by

cables in Sukhumvit

Bill Gates caused something of a furore when he posted pictures on social media of dozens of wires hanging above the streets of Bangkok. One picture showed a man conducting his business just a few inches above a mass of drooping cables. While the Thai authorities were quick to criticize Bill Gates as ill informed, the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has since promised to remove over head wires from Bangkok by 2021

The issue was that Bill Gates had wrongly assumed that the low hanging wires were carrying the grid of electricity for the city, and that since they were low hanging they must get constantly damaged and people must illegally tap into them in order to get free power.

Bangkok authorities issued a statement correcting the billionaire, pointing out that the main electrical wires were higher up. In Bangkok concrete poles are rented by various companies including the municipal electricity supplier. The lower hanging wires are on posts rented by phone companies and cable TV companies. These wires are low voltage and not a danger to life (or perhaps less dangerous).

Nevertheless, the Facebook comment has prompted action by the incumbent military government. The plan was announced in 2016 for 50 billion Baht to be spend burying wires.

That was July last year and there is not much evidence of anything having changed in Bangkok. If you look up from street level you still mostly see cheap concrete housing and a web of wires. Along the main Sukhumvit drag cables cascade from below the sky train tracks. In the sois they hang across the narrow streets and fan from aerial points to provide landlines.

The situation is similar in Japan. They originally made the conscious decision not to bury wires because they felt in a major earthquake buried high voltage electrical cables might be a major hazard to life. This resulted in a situation where companies gained lucrative government contracts to maintain poles for the wires. The high value business has successfully lobbied to keep government policy as it is despite data from earthquakes showing buried wires are safer than falling wires.

Of the major metropoles in Japan only parts of historic Kyoto have been beautified by getting rid of wires from sight.

I suspect a similar dynamic is at work in Thailand. The business of renting out poles for wiring is too lucrative to relinquish without a fight. Besides the improvement is considered mostly an aesthetic improvement of a lower order of importance than upgrading transport and sewage systems.

The deadline for the project to bury 79 miles of cables underground in Bangkok is 2020/2021. They are ahead of schedule. However, 79 miles is clearly a modest goal that if reached will still leave the cityscape with a tangle of wires overhead.

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