Two years ago, with the help of Haymar Win Tun I published in a Myanmar newspaper a piece entitled “Myanmar is last in the world in telecoms: What can be done.” It was to be published in Bamar as well, but some sad events stopped that from happening. I was happy to see a key concept in that article, that of the “late-starter advantage,” has got legs. Myanmar’s dynamic and understudied market provides a singular chance to observe the “last-mover advantage” as it unfolds. Although Myanmar’s greenfield telecom market holds huge potential, opportunities must be viewed in light of real challenges, including lack of physical supporting infrastructure,poverty, human and institutional capacity and ongoing ethnic tensions.
The work that we have been doing using mobile network big data over the last year, has been challenging on many fronts. I’ve spent some time reflecting on some of the analytical challenges that are faced in the Big Data paradigm and the common fallacies that I sometimes find in the broader discussion I see on the subject. What is below are some of my preliminary thoughts, which I am working up into a paper. Still a work in progress. Comments welcome.
From late April to today, we were engaged in a major push on getting the findings of how ICTs could help improve electricity customer relations out to regulators and other stakeholders in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. This is not as simple as telecom which is a central subject in all countries. In India, we (and our partners) succeeded in attracting regulators from three important states (Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra) to the half-day dissemination event. In Bangladesh, the Chair of the Bangladesh Electricity Regulatory Commission chaired the event and was present throughout. Today, we had a three hour exchange of ideas with the Director General and senior staff of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka.
We don’t really have a formal position. But we collect data on gender and country representation, among other things, in all the training events we run and report them. From the time I used to be involved in admitting students to graduate studies, I’ve had to think about and act on issues of gender and ethnic balance. I’ve never been for quotas; but have always been committed to affirmative action. And I believe I was responsible for admitting some of the most diverse classes of grad students to my School.
It was not the best time to disseminate research results in New Delhi, with the news media preoccupied with the accession of power by the new government. But, as Helani Galpaya said in her introductory comments at the media event, one has to get back to governance at some point. The first news report that resulted highlights the potential of using the ubiquitous mobile phones to improve communication between electricity discoms and their customers. The headline referred to the value of transferring lessons from mobile to electricity, for example by offering prepaid service to those who could not meet the current criteria for connections. The body is meeting state-level energy regulators from Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra to discuss the findings of the survey, which covered 1,279 people in India (Delhi and Patna).
How can the ubiquitous mobile phone improve the lives of the poor? How can the phone become more like the “Aladdin’s Lamp” that Muhammed Yunus talks about, something that can offer any service its owner wants? If the phone is to be about more than just talk, we have to put some effort into adding to the services offered over it. The 2012-14 LIRNEasia research program funded by IDRC focuses on these questions. One thing we discovered in our research was that people need to manage the inevitable power outages.
Increasingly, we are beginning to hit the wall with respect to Internet use because of constraints that involve people. We lack users with the skills necessary to use full potential of the Internet. We lack the innovative entrepreneurs who could develop the content and apps that would attract more of our people to the Internet. The problem is illustrated by the puzzle of Sri Lanka’s low Internet user population (25 percent) and low use of Internet from the home (11 percent of households) despite the country offering the lowest broadband prices in the world. At these prices adoption should be rocket-like.
I wrote this on the flight back from the Baku Internet Governance Forum of 2012, where we did serious damage to the ETNO campaign to introduce the “sending party network pays” principle into an international treaty document governing relations between telcos and companies such as Google (so-called OTTs). I make it a habit to try to understand the opposition. This was the result. Once upon a time, there was a sleepy old railway company, serving a sleepy old town. The tracks were old, the rolling stock had been paid for, and the customers were regular.
LIRNEasia was selected on the basis of a competitive procurement to offer a training course by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). Among the attendees are new recruits of the regulatory commission, staff from the electricity companies, a few government officials and members of the PUCSL’s consumer consultative committee. The course syllabus is here. The course slides will be posted at the end of the course.
Thaung Tin, Myanmar’s Deputy Minister of Communications and Information Technology, who formerly chaired KMD Group, a local computer training company, is a key figure in the ongoing telecom reforms. Here, he responds to questions from a journalist about the challenges MPT, the government-owned company, and the new licensees face. User rates are always increasing in Rangoon, meaning demand is increasing but supply can’t follow it. Whenever we’ve been issuing mobile phones [SIM cards], internet users are quickly increased as well. So when Telenor and Ooredoo start working, they can take up the demand in Burma.
Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT), the state-owned fixed, mobile and international gateway monopoly-cum-regulator, is signing an agreement with Japanese operator KDDI. The latter will take control of MPT’s day-to-day operations. Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) official U Than Tun Aung told Myanmar Times: The process has been delayed for many months because so many steps are required to negotiate with MPT, since it is a state-owned business. The agreement is going to be signed at the end of the month. MPT has been shopping for a foreign partner to safeguard its businesses from two heavyweight new entrants, Telenor and Ooredoo, which are due to launch mobile networks end of this year.
Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited, (BSCCL) has signed an MoU with BSNL as a first step to export IP Transit bandwidth to the northeastern states of India across the eastern land borders of Bangladesh. Initially BSNL will procure 10 Gbps bandwidth from Bangladesh and a three-year agreement will be signed very soon. This February, the Bangladesh government decided to export the unused internet bandwidth, following a request from India in July last year seeking 40Gbps bandwidth for eight eastern Indian states. The BSCCL had earlier projected a monthly earning of around Tk4.83 crore ($643,000) from the export of 40Gbps bandwidth; but the MoU for only 10Gbps bandwidth brought down the estimated monthly earnings to only Tk1.
We are in the big data for development space, but we keep an eye on what is happening in the big data for profit space. And IBM is a company we watch. Since 2005, IBM has invested $24 billion in the data analytics business, including $17 billion on 30 acquisitions. In 2013, the business generated nearly $16 billion in revenue. So if IBM makes less money in the future selling hardware, software and services for corporate customers’ data centers, it plans to make more money helping its customers make sense of data — to cut costs, increase sales, innovate and personalize product offerings.
Over the past seven years, LIRNEasia has been engaged in a capacity-development exercise in the form of CPRsouth [Communication Policy Research south]. The objective has been the development of policy intellectuals, or informed and motivated outsiders to the ICT policy and regulatory process (though reflective practitioners from within the system have not been excluded). LIRNEasia, along with others, has also tried to build capacity for reform among those within the triangle through formal training and similar activities. CPRsouth did not seek to directly change the behaviors of actors within the triangles. The intellectuals who were formed or influenced by CPRsouth would, it was hoped, form or become parts of issue networks that would advance the public interest by initiating or sustaining reform.
Bangladesh has abundant international Internet bandwidth while Bhutan generates surplus electricity. Newly appointed Bhutan’s Ambassador to Dhaka, Pema Choden, has expressed interest in importing surplus bandwidth from Bangladesh. In that meeting, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam also showed interest in Bhutan’s plentiful electricity to meet the growing energy demand of Bangladesh. Both the neighbors are now poised to be the friend in mutual needs. Bangladesh currently consumes only 40Gbps of its 200Gbps capacity of the SEA-ME-WE 4 submarine cable.
Today was the first public airing of our big data for development research results. It was a small amount of time, so we focused on a limited set of issues. So we showed that anonymized data sets can easily substitute for costly traffic studies. Slides.