This piece was written by Basheerhamad Shadrach, Asia Coordinator at A4AI. The piece was originally published on East Asia Forum.
In 2010, internet penetration in Myanmar was less than 0.3 per cent of the population, amounting to a mere 130,000 users. By 2016 this figure had risen 100 times to 13 million citizens online, and this number continues to grow.
A World Bank-funded telecom reforms program led to the arrival of two private operators in 2013 to compete with the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. With the arrival of a fourth operator in 2016 and the potential upgrade of some of the existing technology to LTE (providing 4G-speed internet), the country’s 22 million broadband users have reason for optimism.
The country’s yet-to-be-approved telecommunications master plan sets an ambitious target to ensure high-speed internet access for 50 per cent of Myanmar’s population by 2020. When it comes to universal service, the country hopes to extend its coverage to 94.8 per cent of the population by the first quarter of 2019.
While the government says that its targets are likely to be met, interventions are needed to ensure that the people who most need broadband access — women and poor rural populations — are not left behind.
Although Myanmar’s poverty levels have declined over time, women are predominant in the current revised estimate of the country’s 38.8 per cent rural poor population.
Women are unlikely to use the internet unless certain steps are undertaken to ensure that they can access it affordably and know how to use it effectively. The two main reasons why women in Myanmar do not own a mobile device or are unable to access the internet are a lack of affordability and a perceived lack of need. Improving affordability and enhancing technical skills among women are crucial hurdles to overcome.
The Myanmar government has proposed that at least 50 per cent of the universal service access funds (collected through taxes levied on telecom operators) be put toward programs and projects aimed at connecting women to the internet and ensuring greater digital literacy — a recommendation first suggested by the civil society group Alliance for Affordable Internet.
While a commendable start, there has been no discussion on the introduction of programs to teach digital literacy in schools where girls can pick up these skills early on in their lives. This is crucial to complement the government’s efforts to increase internet affordability and connectivity and sustain their effect into the future.
Experts predict a possible slowdown in Myanmar’s telecommunications market growth over the next five years as the market matures. The fixed broadband market remains hugely untapped and underdeveloped, due mainly to the overwhelming growth and penetration of mobile devices and the lack of willingness among operators to invest in fixed broadband infrastructure. The current internet service providers serve more business subscribers than households to cover the high cost of service delivery.
Fibre-to-the-home services are yet to take off in towns, let alone in villages. The popular initiatives witnessed in other parts of Asia, such as public WiFi hotspots and citizen service centres to deliver government and business services to remote and rural populations, are yet to scale up in Myanmar.
Further challenges facing the telecom infrastructure industry — including difficulties in obtaining Right of Way (RoW) under complicated laws regarding the use of farmland and the new draft law on registration of deeds — need urgent review. The lack of standardisation of Myanmar’s infrastructure development process and the absence of a single-window clearance for RoW mean that opportunities to bring faster, more reliable and more affordable broadband services to Myanmar are being lost.
It is also worth mentioning that Myanmar’s current Telecommunications Law of 2013 is quite restrictive with regard to citizens’ online freedom.
Recognising existing efforts by the government, bold strategic steps need to be taken to bridge the digital divide in Myanmar and make broadband access more equitable.
Such steps might include revising the telecommunications law to make it more citizen-centred. The law could be an effective instrument for improving Myanmar’s socio-economic indicators and for strengthening the telecom-linked enterprises in the country.
The government should also strive to create a more conducive regulatory environment to develop telecom infrastructure as a public utility. This could include offering incentives for investment in infrastructure and emerging technologies.
Another priority is the development of public access policies to reach the unreached, mainly by deploying a variety of incentivised schemes to encourage greater internet use among women and Myanmar’s poorest. Broadband should be viewed as an empowerment tool that can help to enhance people’s quality of life and their ability to save time, money and effort in their daily lives.
The government, private sector and civil society all have important roles to play in ensuring prudent investment and continued innovation in Myanmar’s telecom sector. Only by working together can the government’s ambitious targets for universal and affordable internet access be reached.