The view from Myanmar
On the uneven concrete streets of downtown Yangon, a small foldout table balances, holding two phones. Their wires are connected with alligator clips to a tangle of cable hanging from the dangling roots of an adjacent tree.
Mobile phones have been on the increase in Myanmar of late but most people still use street vendor phones to make calls for up to 100 kyat (10c) per minute. Mobile phone penetration in the country is a measly 9%, a fraction of that of other countries in Southeast Asia. Yet all that seems about to change.
There is hope that contracts signed in January with telecom operators Telenor (Norway) and Ooredoo (Qatar) will improve affordability and provide this young population (the median age is 28) with greater access to opportunities.
Both operators have promised to connect over 90% of the country within five years. Telenor SIM cards will go on sale in October with hopes to sell over 30 million. Currently only 5 million of the country’s 60 million people own a mobile phone subscription.
Competition, including from two local providers, will drive down prices and allow grassroots mobile banking and microfinancing opportunities. Most people here are still sceptical of banks, instead placing the little wealth they have into personal assets and saving little on the side. Much of that scepticism is founded in past turbulent economic policies, many based on superstition (see this piece on Burma's superstitious military leadership). Greater mobile phone penetration will allow those in remote areas access to mobile banking and microfinance opportunities, allowing small business to grow outside the once highly centralised economic base.
Greater mobile penetration will likely be an important and tangible change for many rural residents that have seen little real change since the country's opening. In a country where only a quarter of the population have access to electricity, it is a sign of Myanmar's development, one that ushers Myanmar further into the 21st century.
Photo by Flickr user NgoPhotographyPlz.