In Myanmar, a Communications Revolution

Joel Swagerman

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has long been one of the least connected countries in the world, and also one of the poorest in Asia. Historically, its population has suffered from a low level of education, misguided economic management, poor governance and an intentional policy of isolationism. Strategically located between India and China, the country is in the midst of a rapid transformation in many aspects of daily life, spurred by the transition from military rule to a quasi-civilian government and a liberalization of the telecommunications sector.

A great deal of the societal change can be attributed to the growth of the telecommunications industry. Under military rule, strict controls were placed on communications, and infrastructure was woefully inadequate. According to telecommunications equipment firm Ericsson, only around 1 million people in Myanmar had access to mobile phones in at the end of 2011, or about 2% of the population of 51 million.[i] (Myanmar’s population is now 53 million.) State-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) covered only small areas of the country and sold SIM cards for thousands of US dollars—well outside of the reach of the vast majority of Myanmar’s citizens. In 2013, the quasi-civilian government finally decided to open the market to foreign telecom operators.

MPT is still involved, and is transforming itself into a modern telecom company through a partnership with Japanese firms KDDI and Sumitomo. Joining them in the country and expanding at an incredible rate are Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor. Under the terms of their 15-year operating license, Ooredoo and Telenor are required to provide voice service to 75% of the country within 5 years, and data services to half of the country. In order to meet these ambitious targets, Telenor has been building infrastructure at a rate of 200 towers a month, after launching its network with 70. Earlier this year it reported that it was covering 50% of the population.[ii]

Again, this is nothing short of a communications revolution. Cellular phone penetration, also known as mobile density, has gone from 2.7% in 2011 to an estimated 65% this year. The government expects this number to reach 80% by next year, with 50% of its population having access to the internet by then as well.[iii]

Between the three major operators (MPT, Telenor and Ooredoo), an estimated 14,000 base stations will have been built between 2011 and 2015.

Still, there are many old concerns that remain. Myanmar’s politics are complex, and reflect tensions of historical Burma. (For example, after political unrest in 2007, a new constitution was adopted that gives the military one-quarter of all seats in the parliament, effectively giving them veto power over any constitutional changes.)  Myanmar’s past isolationism has resulted in a general distrust of any foreign interventions or contact with outsiders—making the recent success of foreign telecommunications firms in the country even more remarkable.

Yet the recent and “reasonably free and fair” national election resulted in the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) party winning enough seats in parliament both to have a majority and to choose the next president of the country. There is significant reason for continued optimism.

The election result—and the societal changes in Myanmar in general—serves as a great example of the positive effects an open and competitive telecommunications sector can have. With the military no longer ruling the country, Myanmar’s telecommunications sector will likely continue to experience explosive growth, opening lines of communication, educational opportunities, and economic development for citizens of Myanmar.