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Myanmar braces for mobile phone boom as Internet access trickles in

Michael Kan | June 14, 2013
Myanmar's government wants to increase the nation's mobile penetration to at least 75 percent by 2016

But the group can only venture out so far. Out in Myanmar's rural areas, electricity can be scarce, along with PCs. "In some places we cannot teach the Internet, because there is no Internet," Nay Phone Latt said. "People are not familiar with computers."

In urban areas like downtown Yangon, Internet access is available at local Internet cafes that charge about $0.32 an hour. At the Lifenet cafe, access speeds reach only 0.30 Mbps, but it is enough for 27-year-old Sai Woon Tip to visit Facebook, perhaps Myanmar's most popular website. On the site, users can easily share news with one another, especially articles on controversial topics, he said.

Big changes, however, are in store for Myanmar's tech landscape. Over the next three years, the country's government wants to raise mobile penetration to between 75 and 80 percent. To do so, Myanmar is opening up the nation's telecommunications industry, and is seeking bids from foreign telecom groups to improve the nation's mobile network. On June 27, the government will announce the two successful bidders.

"When the licenses are issued, it's expected the two operators will hit the ground running," said Thaung Su Nyein, the managing director of local IT and media company Information Matrix. "They'll just sell the hell out of the whole market."

Already, Myanmar has released a limited number of SIM cards for the low price of $1.50. But soon cheap phone plans will become available to millions, along with faster connection speeds, including the potential for 4G services, according to local industry watchers. In the meantime, major handset vendors are gearing for the future demand.

Last November, Samsung Electronics entered the Myanmar market, and in May, the company held an event to launch its Galaxy S4 smartphone in the country. Taiwan's HTC has also opened up shop, and like others, localized its handsets with the Burmese language.

"Myanmar people like HTC, iPhone, Samsung," said Htoo Htet, a saleswoman at a Yangon handset store. But low-priced phones from Chinese handset maker Huawei are the most popular, she said. An average Huawei handset can cost $125 as opposed to the Samsung Galaxy S4, which can go for $660.

Companies including Google have made visits to Myanmar and lauded the changes in the country. But bringing the Internet to the country's populace will take more than just phones. Two major bottlenecks are the country's sub-standard infrastructure and its low education levels, said Tun Thura Thet, CEO of local software firm Myanmar Information Technology.

"We do not have enough computers in the schools. The teaching methods, the teaching aids, the facilities, everything has to be revised," he said. "I think it is important we have high-income employment."


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