Insight: Disconnected for decades, Myanmar poised for telecoms boom

Thu Sep 13, 2012 1:11am EDT
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By Martin Petty

YANGON (Reuters) - Blackberrys and iPhones aren't much use in Myanmar, where its only network is frequently jammed, data services are scarce, prices extortionate, lines crackly and most phones don't roam. For decades, its telecoms industry has been a shambles.

It's no surprise this country of 60 million people has the world's second-lowest cellphone penetration after North Korea; SIM cards are made prohibitively pricey to prevent its tiny network from becoming overloaded, while emailing and web-surfing on phones is so rare it's almost a bourgeois concept.

Even getting hooked up to the network is cumbersome. Visitors must rent SIM cards at the airport on arrival while many Burmese can only afford one-time SIMs with a number that expires after a few days when its $20 of credit runs out.

But as Myanmar races ahead with economic reforms, the telecoms sector, riven with graft and mismanagement and lagging behind even Asia's poorest countries, is on the verge of a major shake-up as part of a "reform plan" to liberalize one of the world's last remaining greenfield telcos markets.

Details of the plan are scant, but Myanmar appears to have finally got its act together and insiders say it could announce its plans this week.

Eager to attract foreign investors to one of Asia's poorest countries, the government could make telecoms the first sector to be liberalized. After a year of stumbling and opaque deals that favored vested local interests, speed and transparency now appear to be the priority.

"We're going to finish it soon, we really cannot wait," Kyaw Soe, a senior official at the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, told Reuters. "It's closely related to economic growth of our nation, so this is a priority sector."

Last month, 11 companies from 10 countries, including Japan, Australia, Germany and the United States, were short-listed from 64 applicants to become consultants and prepare a telecoms license tender. The list is now down to three.   Continued...

Thandar Tun waits for customers at a public call office (PCO) phone shop in Yangon May 27, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Szep