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June 27, 2017

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Tech sector sizzles as Myanmar eyes Internet for all

On Saturday Norway's Telenor launched SIM cards costing just 1,500 kyat (US$1.5) in Mandalay — a far cry from the US$3,000 a card could cost under military rule — ahead of a wider roll-out in Yangon and Naypyidaw.

The move comes after Qatari firm Ooredoo began selling its SIM cards at the same price last month, throwing open the mobile Internet floodgates.

An estimated 25 percent of people are already online and the Myanmar Computer Federation expects around half of the population, over 25 million people, to be surfing the net in the next three years.

David Madden, whose Yangon-based Code for Change group seeks to promote and support budding techies, said that unlike in the West where Web design began with a focus on computers and laptops, Myanmar Internet consumers will be primarily using cheap smartphones.

"People are going to be able to afford one thing and they are going to want it to do a lot," he told AFP. "It's the thing you want in your pocket, it's the thing you want when you are sitting in a bus stuck in traffic."

Local Twists

Social media giant Facebook has dominated the Myanmar Web to such an extent that it is the first — sometimes only — port of call for Web users.

But Google's Myanmar-language search engine has struggled to attract users because it uses a standardized font — unicode — whereas many Myanmar websites are written in a locally produced zawgyi font, meaning they are unreadable on the international search engine.

A local firm Bindez, led by former Google employee Rahul Batra, is taking on the Web Goliath as it tries to create a zawgyi-compatible search engine.

The booming tech scene has also given the country a chance to showcase local passions, from checking personalized horoscopes, to a game that allows armchair sportsmen to play virtual "Chinlone" — a beloved traditional cane ball game — with a quirky owl avatar.

And while connections often remain glacially slow, online entrepreneurs are now grappling with the dilemma that has tormented Web-based firms the world over — how to turn clicks into cash.

Mobile money — using the credit bought to top-up mobile phones to make payments for other goods and services — helped by the flood of affordable SIMs now entering circulation, could help.

It is seen as a vital potential tool for the vast swathes of Myanmar's largely unbanked and rural population to access anything from loans to retail payments.

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