The telecoms industry in Myanmar is rapidly changing, although its technology and infrastructure remains far behind other countries in the region. Up until 2008 the cost of GSM SIM cards in Myanmar was prohibitively expensive for most people – with prices ranging from $US1,500-$US3,000. Even with these high costs, reception was often spotty and basic services like voicemail and text messaging were not possible. But since 2008 things have started to change. The first change was that the government introduced prepaid SIM cards – which could be bought for US$20 and used until they expired. These cards were produced by a joint venture between the government and a company owned by Tay Za – one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country, and were very popular.
After the introduction of these first prepaid cards, the government introduced a new lower-priced postpaid option. These new SIM cards cost about $500 (thus the name nga thein phone lit. 500,000 Kyat phone) after which users could add credit using top-up cards available at phone shops. These $500 SIM cards became widely popular and as a result the older $1500 cards dropped in value. In 2011 and 2012 even cheaper SIM Cards became available, but these cards are still relatively expensive compared to international standards – about $230-$270 at current exchange rates. Unlike most other countries who have adopted a single standard, Myanmar uses many different wireless standards including GSM, CDMA 450, CDMA 800, and others.
The Myanmar government has realized that State control over the telecoms industry has been disastrous, and most observers expect that the Ministry of Posts and Telecoms will privatize the entire telecoms market – opening it up to international competition and investment. While this hasn’t happened yet, local and foreign firms see the tremendous opportunities in this market and are currently positioning themselves to get a piece of it.
Another potential investment for foreign firms in the telecoms sector is for Internet Service Providers. Visitors to Myanmar will recognize the problem with the Internet right away – it’s slow. The government has stated that it will continue to upgrade Myanmar’s Internet infrastructure, but don’t be surprised if a contract is given to a private firm to accomplish this. Another interesting feature about the Internet market in Myanmar is that home use of the Internet is still relatively rare. Most people use the Internet at one of two places–at work or at Internet cafés. As more people learn how to use the Internet and more Myanmar-oriented websites pop up, demand for home lines is certain to increase. Foreign firms can be very competitive in the Internet market because they have more expertise and experience than their Myanmar counterparts. It remains to be seen what level of foreign investment will be allowed in this sector, but any investment will surely be an improvement over the situation today.