We have been of the opinion that electricity is an important as ICTs in putting money in people’s pockets and hope in their hearts. We have worked on how to improve electricity service and continue to work on different aspects of what is a multi-faceted problem. We would love to work on electricity in Myanmar. They sure need help. Unfortunately, Phyo Min Thein’s party, the National League for Democracy, has failed to deliver.
Usually, these are not subjects that are seen as connected. But I connected them at a talk I gave at the Colombo Club today. When the losses in one year from one SOE that serves a limited clientele are almost double the total spent on the social safety program that touches over one million families, it is not a difficult case to make. My slides are here.
In contrast to the usual tales of woe, increasing losses and strikes, an online publication had this optimistic story: Sri Lanka Post has done its homework. According to Shervyn Senadheera, Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Posts, Postal Services & Muslim Religious Affairs, a survey conducted between 2013 and 2014 with a sample size of 1,122 participants found that only 15 – 18% of the population has the capability of getting their services online, through the internet, mobile phones and apps. The rest of the population faces immense hurdles in terms of language, computer literacy, access to hardware, and confidence with technology. Senadheera is of the opinion that whatever the technology introduced, basic problems like those mentioned above need to be addressed first. And there is truth to the statement: even a giant technological development drive will need to tackle computer literacy before the people can enjoy its benefits.
A conference organized on the occasion of the retirement of a senior professor, set apart a full day for papers and discussion on the options for improving government universities. Of course, most of the audience was from the government universities and having devoted their entire lives to that enterprise, many were not willing to recognize how bad things were. Some discussed how the deck chairs could be rearranged on their beloved Titanic. Many blamed the “demand side” for not knowing how their students were and for using wrong criteria, not understanding that this itself was a symptom of a complacent monopoly. I was, of course, accused of many things.
The nationwide unplanned outage last Sunday has obviously got everyone upset. While some are trying to make political capital out of it, the responsible thing to do is to understand the causes and act to avoid a recurrence. This appeared to be the objective of the reporter who interviewed me last week for this article. There is one place where the report does not exactly reflect what I said. I was asked whether I was happy with CEB’s /PUCSL’s role.
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.
LIRNEasia seeks to foster evidence-based reform. The evidence, in the countries we work in, points to most of the needed actions having to do with reforming the state, by getting it to pull back from its current role of stifling decentralized innovation. This has caused many on the unthinking “left” plying their trade in the non-profit sector to look at us with suspicion, if not outright hostility. But they do not see that a great deal of what we do is about regulation in various forms. If there were active standard bearers of conventional right-wing thinking in our region, I am sure they would be throwing rocks at us too.
Somehow, electricity lacks the sexiness of ICTs. People debate how many households have mobiles, but few know how many households have electricity. This on a subject Lenin thought was so important that he proclaimed “Socialism + Electricity = Communism.” Not that I advocate Communism, Lenin forbid. So I was very pleased when a book on energy policy was launched by a Sri Lankan Minister.
Myanmar is in the midst of a dramatic transformation under the Thein Sein administration. ICTs are front and center, with both Ooredoo and Telenor set to launch services within weeks. In an op ed published in Myanmar in May 2012, almost a lifetime ago given the scale of the changes, I said: “Starting late means that most of the mistakes have been made, by others. In the world of policy design, we spend the most effort working around previous mistakes.” To avoid mistakes and capitalize on the first-comer advantage, it is important that the lessons of those who walked the path of telecom reform earlier be available within Myanmar in a form that is accessible to all.
A World Bank Report describes the problems faced by India as it seeks to power its economy to higher performance. What can be done? “Power is a very sensitive issue and it is tough to build consensus around reforms,” Pargal said. “We therefore lay out a menu of options for the government to consider.” Welcoming the study for highlighting the numerous complexities of the challenge within one report, Jyoti Arora, Joint Secretary in the power ministry, said a lot of thinking is going on regarding power issues in the government.
The prospects of breakthrough changes in electricity dominated a number of my recent conversations. Could be because we were disseminating our 2012-14 research results to electricity audiences, or because we just finished teaching an introductory course on electricity regulation. But, it’s also possible that the prospects of a step change are imminent, driven by the increasing demand for reliable, universal electricity access by the neo middle classes (to use the terminology of the victorious BJP), and also the technological possibilities opened up by the application of ICTs to electricity networks. But is the development community beginning to look at electricity? One indicator is that electricity papers are being read at ICT4D conferences.
We know how much pent up demand there is in Myanmar for voice and data communication. The government has fast-tracked reforms to respond. World Bank and others, including LIRNEasia in our small way, are striving to help. Some tunnel-visioned do-gooders are trying to hold back informed reforms that will learn from the experiences of countries that have liberalized their markets before Myanmar, but we hope they will fail. Giving the people of Myanmar what most people take for granted poses significant challenges.
LIRNEasia has been engaged with the telecom reform process in Myanmar for some time now. Back in 2012, I published an op ed inside Mynamar entitled, “Myanmar is last in world for telecoms: What can be done?” Last month, another article was published, this time in Bamar. The tone was a lot more optimistic. At this moment we are working on comments on the draft regulations drafted under the new law.
When I was interviewed by a journalist from the Internet Journal, said to have one of the highest circulations in Myanmar, I offered him a short piece I had written about Myanmar. It’s now been translated into Bamar (except for the table and my name). The last few paras of the piece: The government intends to establish a regulatory agency within two years. In the interim, the Ministry of Post and Telecom will function as the regulator. There are concerns both about capacity to regulate in terms of technical skills and also in terms of ability to exercise authority over the incumbent allied with a military-backed entity.
LIRNEasia is not known as an energy shop, but we’ve been getting into electricity issues gradually. In a week or so, LIRNEasia will be making a presentation to the Public Utility Commission of Sri Lanka on the best ways to introduce demand-side management. This NYT article shows how difficult deviating from the conventional path is and how much care has to be taken in effecting reforms in this critical area. German families are being hit by rapidly increasing electricity rates, to the point where growing numbers of them can no longer afford to pay the bill. Businesses are more and more worried that their energy costs will put them at a disadvantage to competitors in nations with lower energy costs, and some energy-intensive industries have begun to shun the country because they fear steeper costs ahead.
It was not long ago, that we thought the Myanmar would remain asleep whilst the rest of the world (save maybe North Korea) reaped the rewards of a vibrant telecommunications sector. Even a few short years ago, the only phone connectivity was through kiosks such the one depicted in the photo, a mobile SIM could cost upwards of a few thousand dollars. But things are changing. Myanmar is opening up. Two mobile operators have been licensed.