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CityFixer

That Time Bill Gates Accidentally Shamed Bangkok Into Burying Its Power Lines

Thai authorities say they will finally move the city’s power, cable, and telecommunications lines underground after the philanthropist posted about it—incorrectly—on Facebook.

A man sells food under a canopy of wires in Bangkok. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Late last month, Bill Gates made a gaffe on social media. He posted a photo to his Facebook page of a mass of wires hanging from a concrete pole on a Bangkok street, lamenting the fact that urban areas like the Thai capital “suffer from frequent blackouts.” He added that such a situation compels people to illegally tap into the grid “at great personal risk”—hence the dangerous-looking wires.

It turns out that Bangkok rarely has problems with its electricity, and that the wires pictured in Gates’ photo were actually low-voltage ones for phones and cable television. Thai citizens and the Thai government were not amused. Facebook users rushed to point out Gates’ error, and the country’s Provincial Electricity Authority reportedly created a graphic showing how high-voltage power lines sit high on their poles, while low-voltage wires are positioned much lower.

Bill Gates posted this image along with a false supposition that faulty infrastructure in Bangkok causes frequent power cuts. He’s since taken the posting down from Facebook.  

The jumble of wires pictured in Gates’ photo is in fact a common sight in Bangkok and other Thai cities. The danger of the wires is not so much that they are en plein air, but that cable and phone companies rent the poles from state electricity authorities to hang their wires. In recent years the poles have become so overburdened that they are prone to collapsing. As a result, the state has been rejecting new rental requests, hampering Thailand’s burgeoning digital economy. And though the Thai government has been talking about moving cables underground since 2011, it’s an expensive proposition—and as such has been slow going.

Gates’ message, however incorrect, appears to have spurred the government to faster action. Within a week of his Facebook post, Thai authorities, at the urging of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced a plan to spend around 50 billion baht ($1.4 billion) to put 79 miles of cables underground on 39 roads in Bangkok and surrounding areas. The project’s deadline is now 2020—five years ahead of schedule.

A Bangkok Post editorial lauded the move, noting that Mr. Gates “had a good point to make” even though he “literally got his wires crossed.” Sirinya Wattanasukchai, an assistant editor at the Post, wrote a more caustic response, inviting Mr. Gates to tour more of Bangkok so he can shame the government into action on other projects. “I’ll urge him not to post [more] photographs on [social media],” she wrote. “That would be an embarrassment to the government… But in doing so, maybe some of the age-old problems would melt away.”

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk
    Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on the Middle East and Asia. She lives in Washington, D.C.