In 2012, I wrote in a Myanmar newspaper that according to the latest ITU data, Myanmar had less mobile SIMs in service for 100 people than every other country except St Helena, which had no mobile service at all. There was nothing to say about Internet.
Three years later, Myanmar has leaped ahead of both Pakistan and Bangladesh in the ICT Development Index (IDI), driven principally by a 15-place advance in the Use Sub-index. It is now ranked 142nd among the countries that are included by the ITU in the Index.
The massive increase in the number of mobile SIMs per 100 people increasing from one in 2010 to 49.5 in 2015 is extraordinary and contributed to a 6-place advance in the Access Sub-index. But the real story is that Myanmar overtook Pakistan and Bangladesh primarily on the strength of Internet use, as evidenced by the massive increase in active mobile broadband subscriptions and a close to fourfold increase in bandwidth per Internet users. Active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 0 to 14.9 within four years, with the actual increase occurring in 2014-15 after the reforms. As a result, Myanmar’s Use Sub-index value is almost three times that of Pakistan and more than double that of Bangladesh. These countries had started their sector reforms almost two decades earlier and were not disadvantaged vis-à-vis Myanmar.
The designers of the 2013-14 sector reform, the three suppliers of mobile voice and broadband services, and the people of Myanmar have, with the help of some external factors, achieved an increase in Internet use at an unprecedented pace. At most, the take-up reflected in the ITU data occurred over 12-14 months, starting from August 2014 when competitive supply commenced.
The reformers in the Myanmar Ministry of Communication and Information Technology steered a path between continued dependence on the government-owned former monopoly supplier and over-reliance on new entrants supported by foreign direct investment. No exclusivities were granted, but the bidders for the new licenses were given a clear picture of what they could expect in terms of competition. Demands for compulsory partnership with domestic firms were resisted, thereby giving the two foreign-owned new entrants the flexibility to act. These demands were instead channeled into the fourth license that is yet to be issued. The former monopolist was not left to respond to the well-resourced new entrants on its own. Its management was handed over to international partners with experience in competitive markets and with access to capital. The first nationwide representative sample survey conducted by LIRNEasia in February-March 2015 showed that still the largest number of connections were being supplied by the rejuvenated former monopolist.
The suppliers were aggressive in their rollout and marketing, perhaps even at times connecting more customers than their inchoate networks could handle. But they were also flexible. They deviated from their original plans, for example when it was seen that Myanmar customers were more interested in data than originally thought.
And the people played their part too. The February-March 2015 LIRNEasia survey showed that by 63 percent of all phone owners had purchased smartphones, with three percent owning both smartphones and feature phones. The availability of relatively low-cost smartphones was a critical external factor. While cheap smartphones were found among those surveyed, the mean price that had been paid was USD 87. Despite continuing problems with the standardization of the Myanmar font, the smartphones made it possible for the rapid take-up of data services. At the end of its first quarter of operations, Telenor Myanmar reported that 40 percent of its customers were daily data users.
Some may be concerned that the full potential of the Internet cannot be realized through the smartphone interface. In cooperation with local civil-society organizations, the operators are rolling out large numbers of common-access centers. Digital literacy is being promoted. Apps and content that would be of interest to Myanmar customers are being developed at a pace.
A vibrant discussion involving a range of stakeholders is underway on sensitive issues such as regulation of hate speech. Many organizations focused their energies on contributing to the conduct of a fair election using the affordances of mobile communication technologies. The election was seen as fair overall. Definitive evidence of the contribution of mobile communication is yet to be made public, but journalistic accounts point to a positive contribution.
The extraordinary success of the Myanmar ICT infrastructure reforms can be replicated to the extent reforms can be replicated. The basic principles of introducing competition, providing a high degree of certainty for investors, and as much flexibility as possible for operators are replicable. However, the ground conditions are unique to each country and therefore the specific form that the reforms take in each country will differ.
For example, Myanmar is the last large green-field market of substantial size. Cuba, which is possibly on the cusp of change, is a much smaller market with a population one fifth the size of Myanmar and no Internet access to speak of. It can learn from Myanmar’s success, but it is unlikely that its reforms will take that exact form.
Market reforms are by definition sustainable. They do not rely on subsidies or donations, but on payments for services or goods.
The underlying infrastructure is what enables everything that WSIS is about. The reforms implemented by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of the Myanmar Government have given the opportunity for all Myanmar citizens to participate in the world of the Internet. For that they deserve this award under WSIS Action Line 2.