A SIM card in Myanmar costs just a fraction of what it did five years ago. Lower prices and the availability of cheap smartphones from China have made access to mobile Internet easier for all but the poorest.
— The cost of a SIM card in Myanmar is 1% of its 2013 price. Today, one can be bought for less than $2
— There are more active SIM cards than people in Myanmar
— Fixed-line connections are far less common than mobile ones, although the market is changing
— Public infrastructure expansion projects are hindered by bureaucratic complexity
In Myanmar in 2000, a SIM card was a luxury reserved for only the very few — it cost around $5,000 (€ 4450). Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, prices continuously fell from those stratospheric heights, but getting a card involved applying to a type of lottery system or trying to buy one off of someone else. As recently as 2013, a person in the largest and poorest country in Southeast Asia needed to hand over about $150 for one.
Street vendor: Plummeting SIM card prices have made mobile Internet access widespread even in rural Myanmar.
Things began to change when the government liberalized the market in 2013. One year later, the state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) went into partnership with Norway’s Telenor and Qatar-based Ooredoo. That set the stage for a dizzying fall in prices that put voice communications and mobile Internet access within reach of the majority of the population. “Connectivity these days is pretty much on a level with a lot of usage in the West,” said Victoire Rio, an independent information and communication technology (ICT) research and advocacy coordinator. In 2018 a fourth mobile provider, MyTel, entered the market and triggered an aggressive scramble for customers. Since then SIM cards have become, for all intents and purposes, free. Indeed, there are now more active SIM cards in Myanmar than there are people with SIM penetration rate at around 105%.
Add to that the availability of low-cost smartphones from China, which can be bought for as little as $20, and the result is Internet access that is no longer limited to the rich. Smartphone penetration in Myanmar climbed to about 80% in 2018, putting it ahead of countries like Germany (78.8%) and the United States (77%).
That doesn’t mean that absolutely everyone can afford to go online. Data costs are still prohibitive for very low-income people. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (ARAI) ranked Myanmar 30th in its 2018 affordability survey, behind Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, but up from 42nd place in 2017. “SIM card prices mean they are accessible to almost everybody. But data and call rates still pose challenges, especially for disadvantaged people, non-skilled laborers and some people in the countryside,” said Soe Lin Htoot, the founder of Myanma Fifth Estate, a civic tech, communications for development and democracy startup.
Phone shops are ubiquitous in Myanmar and are introducing new services, like mobile payments (DWA/K. James).
Because of the cheap rates for SIM cards, almost everyone uses mobile Internet. The country’s fixed-line infrastructure lags far behind; private fixed-line Internet connections have, up to now, been rare and expensive. In 2018, fixed broadband penetration was only 0.1%. But, similarly to mobile development, things are beginning to rapidly change.
For years, broadband Internet was only available via one or two retailers — who charged exorbitant prices. Few businesses could afford it. But, by the end of 2017, following market liberalization, there were 137 telecommunications license holders and the government began allowing companies to set up international gateways, which drove down prices for broadband.
In addition, Myanmar’s Internet backbone has seen a significant improvement over the last few years. For more than a decade, the country relied mostly on two cables: one overland to Thailand and the undersea SEA-ME-WE 3. More recently, the country has deepened its connection to the international Internet backbone via SEA-ME-WE-5, AAE-1 and its first private undersea Internet cable, the Myanmar-Malaysia-Thailand-International Connection (MYTHIC). A new undersea cable called SIGMAR is slated for construction, and will reportedly provide Myanmar with enough capacity to meet the demand for at least the next decade.
While the underlying infrastructure is growing in strength, it is still unclear if the fixed-line market will really take off anytime soon. Mobile operators offer services that satisfy the needs of most users — all network operators offer 4G services which are quite widespread throughout the country — and many may ask why bother with a fixed-line connection, especially as computer ownership is still relatively low.
Government’s bumpy infrastructure drive
After 60 years of dictatorship and isolation from the international community, the government has been eager to establish connections, including digital ones. A Telecommunications Master Plan, drafted in 2015, set the ambitious aim of delivering high-speed Internet access for 50% of the country’s population by 2020. Although it has not been officially adopted, the plan, largely praised by tech NGOs, set out a vision for a “mobile-first, digitally connected nation.” The strategy set connectivity targets for 2020, calling for over 90% of the Myanmar population to be covered by a telecommunications network and over 50% of the population to have access to a high-speed internet connection. According to numbers released by MPT in 2018, the country has already reached the first goal.
While there are ongoing efforts to expand the infrastructure, including official promises to invest in 5G technology, implementation has been slow and uneven. Projects are often slowed by bureaucracy and complicated laws on the use of farmland for infrastructure expansion. Other kinds of anomalies present problems: For example, telecommunications infrastructure now covers over 90% of the country, but another vital element required to support its development — electricity — reaches just 34% of the population.
What the experts say:
Helani Galpaya, CEO, LIRNEasia, points out that some poor people remain unconnected, although her team’s field research discovered that it was not for the reasons many people might think: "We talked to a lot of people who are not online but were saving for a phone. They had $120 or $200 saved up but did not want a US$30 phone from China. They were holding off for an aspirational phone, one for $300 - $600."
Ei Myat Noe Khin is the former digital rights program manager at Phandeeyar, an ICT hub spearheading the use of technology to accelerate development in Myanmar.
Ei Myat Noe Khin, former Digital Rights Program Manager, Phandeeyar ICT hub, says Myanmar’s democratic transition has taken it quickly from near-complete isolation to a high level of digital connectivity, which brings new challenges: "We can say that we had digital leapfrog. People are going straight into smartphones from not having a phone, nor even having experience sending a text message. Most people have very low digital literacy skills."
— The government should follow through on telecommunications plans. While the government has made big commitments on connectivity and access to even remote areas of the country, project implementation and the enactment of relevant legislation has been slow.
— Reduce red tape. Complicated regulations and a lack of standardization in the country’s infrastructure development process have slowed down the process of bringing more reliable and affordable broadband services to more people.
— Build up a public Wi-Fi access system. While initiatives such as public Wi-Fi hotspots and digital service centers have become popular in other parts of Asia to deliver government and business services and digital literacy education to remote and rural populations, they are still underdeveloped in Myanmar. The government should work with private industry and NGOs to scale up these efforts.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer