The announcing of a plan for liberalising Myanmar’s telecom sector offers new hope for growth
Coming into 2012 major changes were on the horizon for Myanmar’s telecom sector. The government planned to liberalise the market to some extent. The initial round of reforms was to happen quickly with the issuing of a series of telecom operating licences, allowing international companies to form joint ventures with the government to build infrastructure and to offer services. The changes coincided with wider reforms being pursued by the quasi-civilian government that had come to power in Myanmar in 2011 after many years of rule by the military.
In the meantime the country is still struggling with the legacy of those years spent under the military junta. The telecommunications sector has long been dominated by the state-owned monopoly telephone service provider, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT). With the military government’s conservative approach to structural reform, it was not surprising that MPT continued to maintain its monopoly over the telecom sector, being the sole national telephone network operator.
Limited progress was made. The MPT drafted a 20-year master plan the period 1990 to 2010 and under this plan a range of different projects were implemented over the years to improve the underdeveloped network. The expansion has been characterised, however, by a somewhat erratic rate of progress. Nevertheless, the country had managed to move from around 100,000 installed fixed lines to more than one million in 2010. Over the same time period the number of fixed-line subscribers increased from 76,000 to just over 600,000. Despite this more than tenfold increase, however, into 2011 the country’s fixed-line penetration was still just a little over 1%. Mobile penetration is not much better, still sitting below 3% coming into 2012. Internet user penetration is also down at a lowly 1%, with actual internet subscriptions making up just a small fraction of that percentage.
Furthermore, the dispersion of network infrastructure has been heavily biased towards the cities, with Yangon and Mandalay having estimated telephone penetrations of 6% and 4% respectively. By 2011 most villages in Myanmar were still without a fixed-line telephone service. According to the ITU, the official waiting list for telephone services stood at 100,000 by 2004 and had increased to 250,000 by 2009. (There has been no updated figure published for 2011.) The installation of new telephone services could often take years. This was despite the fact that MPT said it had been expanding the network by approximately 15% each year. To catch up on demand, it was estimated that MPT would need to install more than 500,000 new telephone lines in a short period of time. This would represent a capital investment of around US$600 million – money that up until now has simply not been available.
Foreign investment in the telecom sector has continued to be low, due to the political situation in Myanmar, the structure of the country’s telecom industry and the general state of the economy, this also being despite the government’s attempts to increase foreign interest. Investment in the sector has been running at less than US$6 million per year. Of course, with the 2012 reforms there was hope that this would change; already foreign operators have expressed interest in investing in a reformed market.
Ironically, the military junta declared via its website only a few years ago that it had been making ‘all-out efforts’ for the development and improvement of the nation’s telecom sector. It went on to say ‘As regards telephone communications, ‘auto-telephones’ were already being installed. Now, one can make telephone contact inside and outside Myanmar quite conveniently.’ It also added ‘Since the communication sector plays an important role in all round development, the necessary improvements such as installation of microwave telephone exchanges in many townships and introducing of mobile phones via satellite communication offered people easy access. In other words, it is an easy access even to the remotest areas in Mandalay’. Not surprisingly, the website did not offer any statistics on the number of telecom (either fixed line or mobile) subscribers in the country.
Whilst the round of major reforms announced in 2012 offer great hope for Myanmar’s telecom sector, there remains much to be done to develop and improve the overall market. Although the plans sound well-intentioned, there may still be some resistance on the government’s part to implementing structural reforms on the scale needed for proper overall development and necessary to attract the level of investment to build the infrastructure required. A hangover from the previous administration’s conservative approach has been that official, up-to-date statistics and information continue to be hard to come by, at least for the time being.
- Myanmar’s mobile market has grown fivefold in the last four years, with growth running at over 100% in 2011;
- Of course, this mobile subscriber growth has been from a low base and the reported 1.2 million mobile subscribers early in 2012 still only constituted a penetration of less than 3%.
- Fixed-line subscriber numbers have been growing erratically (published figures revised downwards); overall penetration remained low, down around 1% by 2012.
- Internet penetration also continues to be disconcertingly low with accurate figures hard to obtain.
- Internet user penetration was around 1% by 2011; at the same time internet subscribers were particularly tiny in number with penetration below one subscription per 1,000 of population.
- Although broadband services were also small in number, one positive aspect has been the progressive introduction of a variety of platforms, including more recently WiMAX services.
- It was also a positive that fixed broadband constituted around 84% of all fixed internet connections;
- On the regulatory front 2012 has seen the announcement of a major move to liberalise the market;
- The initial round of proposed reforms were to see some new operating licences issued, allowing international companies to participate in joint ventures with the government to build telecom infrastructure and to offer telecom services.
Note: Market highlights for the Myanmar market are based to some extent on estimated figures and conjecture as official information has not been made available or has been found to be contradictory.
Myanmar (Burma) - key telecom parameters – 2011 - 2012
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This report provides an overview of the trends and developments in the telecommunications markets in Myanmar (Burma). Subjects covered include:
- Key statistics;
- Market and industry overviews;
- Major operators (mobile and fixed)
- Regulatory environment;
- Mobile market;
- Internet market (including broadband).