The Digital Age Steps Softly into Burma

In a recent blog post here and at FreedomHouse.org, I offered my analysis of what the changes in Burma’s ICT sector say about the country’s political transition, and what effects it may have on the same. Think of this as an appendix—less interesting for those into politics and narrative, but perhaps more interesting to dataheads and those working on Burma. Much of what has been recently written about the country is already out of date, and though this, too, will soon be obsolete, my intent is to paint a data-rich picture of the current state of the ICT market in Burma, and offer an anecdotal take on the ICT usage patterns of Burmese civil society at a fleeting moment of transition.

When we talk about ICT use in Burma, it’s important to remember that, for now, we’re talking about a tiny portion of the population. A recent Gallup survey found that 3% of Burmese households have a computer, and less than 1% have an internet connection. Even in urban areas, those figures only rise to 9% and 2%, respectively. As I wrote in the previous piece, low connectivity is the dual result of poverty and policy:

The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month.

Adding to that: in Yangon, a WiMax package allowing usage of up to 12 GB per month costs $90 USD, a 6 GB package costs $55, and a 3 GB package costs $35 USD. As a result, public cafes have been the primary access point for most Internet users in Burma: Gallup found that 89% of those few Burmese who had recently used the internet did so in a café. Even there, prices limit most potential users to relatively brief sessions, while slow-as-molasses speeds and frequent power outages can render the service all but useless. An hour-long session at an average Internet café costs less than a dollar, but even this is prohibitive for average people in Burma.

Recently, there has been a shift toward mobile internet access: many of the civil society leaders I met in Yangon don’t have a wired or WiMAX connection in their home or office, but use laptops tethered to mobile phones to access email and the web. This option is pricier than a session at an Internet café, but far less expensive than a dedicated home or office connection—and though Freedom on the Net reports that the mobile internet “barely functions,” it’s still often faster than a “high speed” connection. Oddly, the advent of mobile Internet has left many Internet cafes in Yangon sitting empty, as they are less convenient than mobile web for those who can afford it, yet still too expensive for poorer citizens.

The data on mobile phones are slightly more encouraging: According to Gallup, 14% of Burmese report having a mobile phone, and almost 30% of urbanites own one. Two years ago, only 3% of Burmese had a mobile: this rise is probably due to drops in the government-fixed price of a SIM card. As I wrote:

While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50 USD, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250 USD: a dramatic drop from the $500 USD it cost until recently.

We should expect the quotient of mobile phone users to continue rising at a rapid clip: Burma’s state telecom agency announced last month that they would privatize the telecom industry, aiming to achieve mobile penetration of 75-80% by 2016. It’s an ambitious goal, but not unrealistic: nearby Cambodia has seen year-on-year growth of 12-14% in their mobile penetration over the past five years, with a current rate over 70%.

Currently, though, Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), the state-run telecom operator, maintains exclusive control over the country’s mobile networks. MPT offers both CDMA and GSM networks, with CDMA offering higher call quality at higher prices; most mobile phone users opt for GSM. Chinese-manufactured handsets—particularly Huawei devices running Android—dominate the market, and are priced at global levels.

For those able to afford a SIM and handset, prices for service are high but not outlandish: a text message costs 25 Kyat (less than $0.03 USD), and a minute of talk-time costs 50 Kyat (less than $0.06 USD). Despite the popularity of text messaging in other, similar contexts, and the manageable cost of the service, Gallup reports that only a third of mobile phone owners regularly send SMS. This is largely attributable to the fact that it remains difficult to type in Burmese on a mobile device. Only in recent versions of Android is a Burmese font and keyboard available, and SMS has yet to take hold even with these users. On older and cheaper phones, users must transliterate to Roman characters, which is impossible for many Burmese.

Mobile credit “scratch” cards are a recent addition to the mobile market—they became available in 2011. Before the arrival of these cards, mobile phone users could only top up their accounts at an MPT office, which many people found inconvenient.  While the advent of these cards is a step in the right direction, they still pose a barrier to many poorer users, as they are not available in denominations smaller than 10,000 kyat—about $11 USD—which is more than most Burmese are able to spend at one time.

For those Burmese who sign up for Internet access, buy time at an Internet café, or purchase a SIM card, the government imposes strict registration requirements, collecting the name and other identifying information of the customer.  A black market of less expensive, unregistered, prepaid SIMs exists, but not many mobile users opt to purchase their SIMs from unlicensed resellers, in part because of the hassle of changing phone numbers every time the SIM runs out of credit.

Because of better support for Burmese fonts and better in-country marketing, Gmail is the ubiquitous email platform in Burma. On the web, Facebook is rapidly growing in popularity. The younger generation of activists and journalists are particularly active on the social networking platform—one college-aged volunteer at a political advocacy organization boasted of having 20 Facebook accounts that he checked regularly. Even political parties are starting to use Facebook for outreach campaigns. Gallup found that among the small number of internet users they interviewed, 80% had used Google to find news and information in the past month, and 40% had used Facebook.  These two services far outstripped any other online news source.

Looking forward, I am relatively bullish about the growth of connectivity in Burma. The government seems genuine in its desire to expand the economy and reduce poverty, and the recent drops in price for web and mobile access are likely baby steps toward a less regulated market. It’s reasonable to expect mobile penetration to reach 60% or even 70% in the next 4-5 years, and while internet access will grow more slowly, civil society organizations based in the major cities should expect to have more affordable, more reliable service in the coming years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s