Building a digital future for Myanmar

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Here, in Yangon, like most of the country, for most of the 20th Century, progress and modern development has been scarce.

But in this downtown lane, in a former tea shop front, a man polishes his new display case of retail handsets.

It is the marker of a city that has been waiting for change and has now stepped out into the spotlight of the international stage.

When the newly-formed government announced in early 2013 that it would award two nationwide telecom licences to international companies, it was a particularly pertinent sign of dramatically changing times.

For decades, under military rule, the simple task of placing a phone call was wrought with risk, expense and ardor. Most urban communities only had access to a few phone lines, generally run from a slapped together wooden table in front of someone’s house.

The changes ahead for Myanmar will continue to unravel at an astounding pace

In rural areas, the obstacles to telecommunication were even more extreme. Myanmar people will tell stories of waiting on the phone up to two hours – or even longer – to get a line connection. That could end up costing as much as a daily wage in the far-flung regions of the nation.

SIM cards that did exist could cost US$2,000 or more to purchase and handsets ran into the high hundreds.
As well as underdeveloped infrastructure, Myanmar people endured intentionally restricted access to communication lines in Southeast Asia’s second geographically-largest country as a way for the generals to enforce secrecy and to prevent mass communication that could spur challenges to the military government.

But a new nation is being built.

The new civilian-government’s ambitious reform agenda, rolled out in 2010, sees Myanmar’s sights set on building a nation of the 21st Century and, in the digital age, a critical part of building a nation is telecommunications.

On 27 June 2013, Telenor Group became a successful applicant for one of the two telecoms licences the Myanmar government put out to tender.

Telenor Myanmar CEO Petter Furberg said he believes the changes ahead for Myanmar will continue to unravel at an astounding pace.

For him, mobile connectivity is no longer a luxury, but a universal service.

“People across the world are using mobiles whether they are rich or poor. Handset prices have come down substantially –handsets are down to ten or fifteen dollars,” Mr Furberg said.

The company has committed to providing 1500kyat SIM cards (about US$1.50) with no limitation on supply.

“People know what it is to make a phone call, if they live in a remote village they will go to someone who has a village phone, so they know what it means to make phone calls, it’s just that [mobile phone service] hasn’t been available,” Mr Furberg said.

“The evolution of industry has clearly made it much more affordable and much more a mass market product then [it used to be],” he said.

The task ahead is not a small one: The government plans to increase Myanmar’s mobile phone density to between 75 and 80 percent between 2015 and 2016.

Current mobile phone penetration for voice calls only is estimated at about 9 percent and internet about 5 percent. This pales in comparison to 57 percent mobile phone penetration in nearby Cambodia, 64 percent in Laos and more than 100 percent in neighbouring Thailand, according to 2012 Deloitte data.

The social impact of a nationwide phone and internet network extend far beyond increased communications. There is a correlation between technology, innovation and economic growth, McKinsey Global Initiative stated in a 2013 report.

“One of the most important strategic decisions that Myanmar can make is to explore how it can leverage digital technology as a central platform of its development plans,” the report said. “Digital technology is accelerating development across emerging economies – and Myanmar has barely begun to tap its power.”

With every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration, gross domestic product grows by 1.2 percent, according to Deloitte data.

With little legacy infrastructure in place, “Myanmar can use digital technology to avoid some of the cost of a more conventional bricks-and-mortar approach to such sectors as banking, retail, education, health care and agriculture,” McKinsey Global Initiative found in its report on Myanmar published in 2013.

In the report, McKinsey highlighted the success of the mobile revolution in Africa spurring a mobile-banking revolution – a sector sorely underused in Myanmar.

“Myanmar is in the throes of remarkable change: Authoritarianism is giving way to political and governmental reform, a peace process could bring an end to decades of civil war, and the government is opening its economy up to the world after years of isolation,” the McKinsey authors said in their report. “But nobody should be in any doubt that the journey ahead will be long and challenging. Myanmar needs to seize its moment.”

Before the recent introduction of the 2013 Telecoms Legislation, Myanmar was using an antiquated 1885 Myanmar Telegraph Act and a 1934 Myanmar Wireless Telegraphy Act. The previous framework has been rightfully referred to as “bewildering”.
UK-based risk consultancy firm Maplecroft has said that the government-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications – currently the sole provider of telecommunications services – is “widely reported as one of the most corrupt institutions in Myanmar”.

The Wall Street Journal reported that in January 2013, the telecommunications minister and other high-ranking officials were removed from their posts under allegations of corruption.

Despite this history, the country’s telecoms sector is seeing a new dawn with the fresh regulatory framework, which has been praised for its inclusive drafting process and more streamlined approvals and applications system.

Myanmar is in the throes of remarkable change: Authoritarianism is giving way to political and governmental reform

However, lessons from other telecoms market openings in Southeast Asia have shown that a balance must be struck in the regulatory framework between growth – so slow as to be tantamount to stagnation – and excessive liberalization, that could lead to price wars.

The price war that broke out in Indonesia’s mobile sector from 2007 to 2008 saw prices fall as low as US$0.01 per minute and resulted in severely diminished revenue and operating profits for telecommunications operators.

In addition to striking the right balance between regulation and competition, infrastructure and geography realities of Myanmar will pose unique challenges for incoming telecoms operators.

Two thirds of the country does not have access to constant and reliable electricity, and while landmark peace agreements have been inked in the country with the world’s longest running civil war, many parts of the nation are still under the control of rebel armed groups.

But on Myanmar’s path to building a nation of the digital age, one that hopes to be a regional leader, these challenges are no longer the unsurpassable obstacles they once were.

Just as the old, colonial vine-covered buildings are cleared away, the old ways of Myanmar are giving way to a new future.