Mobile revolution in Myanmar on the cards, but too slow for many
By Jeremy Wagstaff, ReutersYANGON -- Myanmar is on the cusp of a mobile revolution. Only it's happening way too slowly for many locals.
January 22, 2013, 12:04 am TWN
Last week the government invited expressions of interest for two mobile phone licenses — a first step towards increasing mobile penetration from its current 5-10 percent to 80 percent in three years. That would lift it off the bottom of the world's ladder of mobile use and put it on a par with neighbors like Bangladesh.
In the meantime, users are chafing at the pace and price of adding connections.
A year ago the informal technology conference Barcamp Yangon was buzzing with rumors of a SIM card that would cost about US$6 — or 1 percent of its actual price at the time.
A year on, Barcamp is back but the talk is much less dramatic: whether the state-owned operator might this week release SIM cards costing between around US$100. That would still be half of what the last tranche sold for, but it still leaves many unhappy.
“The clock is ticking,” says Ravi Chhabra, a local technology entrepreneur. “People are frustrated. There is lots of speculation and this creates anxiety.”
Nobody questions the need for more connections, and foreign operators have salivated at what amounts to one of the last major untapped markets.
President Thein Sein has made it clear that mobile telephony is a cornerstone of his policy, and has also vowed that mobile communications would be cheap — a promise he reiterated to a conference of donors on Saturday.
Still, getting it done is not proving easy.
The notice inviting expressions of interest in two licenses was a welcome sign that things were moving, but IT experts and sources close to the communications ministry said the timing was surprising, given that the revised telecommunications law which would define the nature of any investment had yet to be passed by the parliament.
The government said in an appendix to the notice that a new draft of the law — which had been quietly withdrawn last year after criticism about its contents — had been submitted to parliament and was expected to be passed by June.
“After the law is finished then there should be a clear policy before any expression of interest is sought,” said Zaw Min Oo, secretary general of the Myanmar Computer Federation.
On top of that, the next day Telecommunications Minister Thein Tun, who had overall responsibility for mobile licensing, resigned. No reason has been given, and officials declined to comment.
'Bit of an earthquake'
Sources close to the ministry say his departure had been rumored for several months, but the timing was unexpected, and raises questions about what might happen next.
“It's been a bit of an earthquake; now we need to sit back and watch, see which buildings fall down,” said one source close to the ministry who, like others interviewed, declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing business relationships with the ministry and its companies.
Not everyone is concerned. Romain Caillaud, a Yangon-based consultant with Vriens and Partners, says both the notice and the resignation “should accelerate the liberalization and growth of the telecom sector.”
Major foreign telecommunications companies are likely to submit expressions of interest ahead of the deadline of Jan. 25, say experts.