World Economic Forum: An open canvas for telecom in Myanmar
Part of the lure of Myanmar for international investors is that in so many sectors, it really is uncharted territory—you can set your own course. And so it is for telecom, where less than 7% of the population has a mobile phone, and only 1% has a wired connection, the third-lowest penetration rate in the world behind North Korea and Eritrea. Prior to approval of a pending telecom law this year, the previous regulation in Myanmar dates back to 1885. This is truly virgin waters for the entrepreneur, and a few months back Telenor was granted one of the licences to operate a telecom business in that country. This was the setting for the World Economic Forum ( WEF) on East Asia that took place in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, in June 2013. Myanmar is slated to take over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, with the ASEAN Economic Community scheduled for late 2015. One of several subjects addressed was how changes in telecom in Myanmar and the region will affect living conditions in the near future. A lot of services people take for granted are not available in Myanmar, as an estimated 74% of the population lack access to power and live amidst very rudimentary infrastructure. For ICT (information and communications technology) infrastructure, there are “particularly significant” gaps among ASEAN members in the use of the internet and mobile broadband penetration, with Myanmar finishing near the bottom, reported the WEF Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013. The country also has a drop-out rate of 23% between primary and secondary school, the highest in East Asia and McKinsey Global Institute put’s the average schooling at four years according to “Myanmar’s Moment, Unique opportunities, Major challenges”, their report issued in June this year. But most of the business leaders were optimistic about the influence and potential of telecom in Myanmar. Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman and group chief executive of Bharti Enterprises Ltd, pointed to mobile banking, mobile education and entrepreneurship as the benefits of mobile penetration in the economy. He also believes the Myanmar government is committed to using information and telecommunications technology to better the lives of its people. Thaung Tin, deputy minister in Myanmar’s Communications and Information Technology Ministry, said the government aims to have 50% telephone density by 2015, which means half the people living in a designated area have telephone connections. One of the criteria for the telecom licences the government just granted was coverage of 92% of the population within five years, and covering a certain percentage of universities, hospitals and major towns within the first year. “The telecommunications landscape of Myanmar should be totally different two years from now,” said Thaung Tin. But he emphasised that Myanmar’s education system is not able to produce enough capable graduates for service this industry on its own, so that outside expertise was needed for training and technology. “It is urgent that we create human capital that is ready for the industry,” he said. “But for now, we need international operators that have years of experience.” Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft Corporation’s corporate vicepresident for strategic and emerging business, declared “Myanmar’s telecom development has the opportunity to develop human potential”. He added that data sovereignty, public policies and privacy issues need to be normalised for private investment to occur. “Enterprises and ecosystems strive without friction, and governments create friction. But without government participation in the US there would be no Silicon Valley. Then the government kind of got out of the way, and we ended up with machines that automated regular tasks. Entrepreneurs need an environment where they can do business,” he said. Phone calls in Myanmar cost six US cents per minute now, but analysts believe they will drop to two to three cents per minute once infrastructure starts being built.