Chewing through the spaghetti over our heads

opinion June 30, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

2,081 Viewed

Bill Gates becomes the latest foreigner to comment on Thailand’s risky tangles of aboveground utility lines



Sir Walter Scott famously pondered the “tangled web we weave”. He was thinking of lies and deception. Another worldly observer, Bill Gates, wasn’t being deliberately deceitful last week when he posted a snapshot on Facebook of a snake’s nest of overhead electrical and communication cables. 
He wrote: “I’ve visited many cities filled with tangled wires, such as those in this photo from Thailand, where people have illegally tapped into the grid on their own to get the power they need – at great personal risk.” The American billionaire philanthropist was making a common mistake, confusing communication cables for power lines, and hardly anyone still steals power from the electrical grid. 
But Thais ought to hang their heads in shame anyway. The way we weave dozens of aerial wires and cables together might be considered something of an electrical art form, and first-time visitors to the country are always amazed at the sight. It is indeed amazing craftsmanship, and it’s even more amazing that the authorities let people – and private firms and even state enterprises – get away with it. Everyone, both the foreign tourists and the locals, knows it’s a dangerous practice.
Unsightly jumbles of power lines, telephone lines and wires carrying the Internet and cable TV are seen throughout the country and long ago became part of the too-easily accepted “visual pollution” that plagues Thai cities. In urban centres abroad, the wires are reinstalled underground, ridding the pedestrian’s view of the clutter of ugly poles and lines. Thailand is following suit – but very slowly. 
The Metropolitan Electricity Authority is gradually spending Bt143 billion to shift 145 kilometres of overhead power lines under the ground in selected areas of Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan. 
It started in 2014 and aims to finish the job in 2022. It’s already done so in the Silom, Pathum Wan and Chitralada areas of the capital. 
Anyone can see with a quick glance around that there’s still a long way to go. The target for completion, just six years away, might even seem optimistic. 
In the meantime, at least, the authorities need to make sure that residents and visitors in the urban areas are safe from harm. Electrical shocks and other accidents are always a possibility when wires hang loose or are pulled free in storms. The current rainy season has already brought some ferocious winds and heavy downpours that have dislodged cables.
The Electricity Authority, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Electricity Generating Authority and National Broadcast and Telecommunications Commission should be pooling efforts to ensure not just that all power and communication cables are reinstalled underground but also that it’s done with care and efficiency. A lack of coordination would result in roads and pavements being excavated repeatedly by different agencies, and the sloppy installation of subterranean lines could lead to breaks and the disruption of services. 
A range of cable types must be moved underground. Businesses that run lines carrying cable TV and Internet feeds are looking at exactly the same kind of work in the same places as the state utilities. Those who cannot deliver their services wirelessly will be contemplating underground pipes rented from the Electricity Authority or other agencies. And they’ll be well aware that the cost of running lines underground is triple that of stringing them overhead on poles. 
Regardless of the price, the shift underground is well worth it, given that citizens will be safer and the streetscape will be vastly improved in appearance. In Bangkok, it’s to be hoped that the effort to hide utility lines underground will go beyond just the areas associated with tourism and big business and cover most, if not all, of the city.