Since the opening up of the telecommunications sector to foreign competition in 2014, Myanmar has felt positive changes in its booming internet market posting growth year after year. It is a prominent example of digital evolution for a low-income country among SEA countries, allowing people to enjoy the benefits of digital economy and to live their lives in an inclusive way. Today the telecom sector is on the way to prove its indispensability reaching over 20 million data-users of the population, each consuming 3.3gbps per month and average screen time per day of 3 hours in 2020. Moving up from less than 10% in 2013 to over 120% mobile connections in January 2020, Myanmar telecom market has experienced exponential growth in mobile penetration followed by data consumption. Now an opportunity for the telecoms and internet driven services to reconfigure their flattening creations has arisen in 2020 and in the years to come.

Myanmar’s mobile market growth was driven by the entry of three competitors- MPT, Telenor and Ooredoo in the market. This has dramatically increased market competition. By 2019 the mobile market was approaching saturation and was seeing increased competition over data prices after the entry of a fourth operator- Mytel. A report –Mobilizing Myanmar by Partner Asia Organization in 2017 studied about the momentous transformation underway in the country- says the share of migrant workers having 3.1 million workers abroad remit $3.5 billion in 2015 alone is attributing to a higher rate of mobile usage. For communications, people are equating being online with staying on Facebook, which is the primary mode for digital communication with over 22 million users, where news, events, promotion and marketing are all concentrated. Small corporates and SMEs may not have a website, but they will definitely have a Facebook page. Viber has an even bigger reach with nearly 25 million active users as the platform is used by local government and members of Parliament.

Learning how and why people use their phones in certain ways, and how these habits develop over time, operators are providing packages with free Facebook data access making required changes in their data plans – either increasing the “bucket size” or allowing unlimited data for a short period of time. Some are also offering unlimited national calls.

In addition, the current COVID-19 has globally altered the industry conditions which provided the perfect recipe for digital e-commerce and m-commerce to thrive. Recent Ericsson Mobility report says that data traffic is shifting from city and office areas to residential and suburban areas. Network load shifts geographically as people work from home. An increase in voice traffic across 2G, 3G and 4G networks is seen in many markets because of quarantine and travel restrictions. There is also a measurable increase in both fixed and mobile broadband connectivity worldwide creating frequent indoor entertainment activities and virtual conferences and video calling with friends and family since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The rising popularity of smartphones and uptake of tablets, along with improved telecommunications infrastructure, has been a key driver to the rise of mobile commerce. It works best in those areas where it can emphasize the core virtue of mobile networks- convenience. Myanmar has seen m-payments stimulated by a growing range of specialised mobile money offerings. Recently, MPT Money has announced its partnership with two local online merchants, Hi-So and Zay Chin Mart, to offer fast and secure digital payments through its e-Wallet service while ordering groceries, foods and household goods from the convenience of their own homes with the aims to improve the customer experience while shopping online with convenient and cashless payments. The e-retail sector is finally coming to its own upon growth of the digital payments mixed with consumers’ willingness to seek cheaper and broader retail options. The mobile sector is increasingly driving traffic to e-commerce businesses.  

Given the rate of technological change, a life once spent leisure hours on big TV monitors at home only has turned into an abundant life with greater access to real time streaming contents and internet videos on hand-sized smartphones not just limited to TVs and computers over the last two years, because of Over-the-top (OTT) video streaming providers into Myanmar attracted to rapid growth in telecom services. People now have attractive entertainment options at anywhere, anytime through multiple subscription plans pegged with competitive bundle rates offered by four operators and broadband service providers.

Viu entered the market in 2018 with a promise to include local language subtitles for all of its content sourced from other Asian countries despite issues with fonts. The company partnered with homegrown Internet service provider Myanmar Net to bundle subscriptions with the former’s fixed and WiFi broadband services, with associated data packs costing $1 for unlimited viewing over five days. It has made partnerships with Telenor Myanmar and Ooredoo. Asian-focussed competitor iFlix is available at $2 a month, with a small library of local Burmese content, which can be paid for via prepaid cards on local city marts and through its partnership with MPT. MPT collaborated with SkyNet to deliver its live streaming service on mobile devices for English Premier League football matches in 2019, with the MPT Ballone app being free to existing subscribers through additional charges for data packages may apply. 

Elsewhere Cookie TV is a mobile app for subtitled content which is paid for via data bundles from the account holders SIM cards. Myanflix is an entirely free online streaming app for a small and selective library of Myanmar movies, though new additions are slow to appear. The sector will continue to strengthen as handsets with smarter capabilities, new apps and user interfaces permeate the market. It will also include this technology in the broader concept of The Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) developments.

Increasingly faster speeds offered by the mobile operators will drive the mobile broadband market as they roll out 4G and eventually 5G networks. Eric Timmer, Head of Ericsson Myanmar said in a statement in the press release of June mobility report, “It is key to invest in 4G in Myanmar to excel in 5G. Here, private networks represent a very important first step and fundamental to building a momentum in serving an array of 5G-enabled use cases. Mobile technology is an unmatched connectivity foundation for the digital transformation of any industry, and any product, anywhere in the world.”

Fixed broadband penetration in Myanmar remains extremely low mainly due to a limited number of fixed lines as well as the dominance of the mobile platform. However, by 2019 several new fixed broadband service providers were emerging, installing fibre below or above ground for fixed line broadband access. One factor behind home broadband pricing falls is the entry of the telcos into the home broadband market to compete directly with existing ISPs. The current players shaping the broadband landscape include AGB, WeLink, Truenet, Myanmarnet, Unilink, 5BB and Fortune excluding MNOs. Over the next five years to 2023 the market is expected to grow very strongly but overall market penetration will remain extremely low compared to other nations.

Though the country has ever passing generation of mobile connectivity, there are unequal household accesses to ICTs and ICT connections still remain in underdeveloped regions where people are isolated under lack of basic infrastructure. Realizing the country’s vision of expanding connectivity, communication service providers and operators are on track to deploy solutions for them including marginalised communities. In April 2019, Telenor Myanmar announced that it had extended 4G coverage to 307 out of 330 townships, with the addition of more than 6100 LTE sites. Some 856 new sites were added in the first quarter of 2019, with plans to bring the total to more than 1100 by mid-2019. According to The Oxford Business Group coverage on growth of telecommunication services, there were more than 14,500 towers in Myanmar, with some estimates putting the figure at 20,000 in 2018. It noted a further 8000-9000 towers would be required to meet demand for smartphone data services. Access to electricity remains a significant source of power to keep these mobile networks running and made operator changeling to expand the distribution of network.

Sadly, Myanmar has issues in the liberalising ICT sector by taking advantage of the established laws which in turn squeeze the telecom operators to abide by the laws yet to continue as responsible businesses in customers’ mind according to news emerged in recent months. The government has come up with a controversial plan asking telecom operators to pool biometric information from users along with SIM registrations, according to a news report by local media house, Myanmar Times in late 2019. Reacting to the instructions, current operators unequally support the plan and some foreign based Digital rights associations stressed on privacy protection and level of relevance at both ends—company and customers – in the long-run.

Currently, the country is lacking a proper legal framework or regulation on privacy protection. The Post and Telecommunications Department (PTD) issued an order in early 2020 to go into SIM cards registry and use them legally with ID. According to official announcements, the unregistered SIMs will be permanently shut off from June 30. Besides privacy controversy, there were direct orders from the communication industry to four of its mobile operators to block access to over 200 specified websites under Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law, according to Telenor. As tech and government grow more comfortable with each other, they’ll face the temptation to indulge their shared instincts especially when both possess an intrusive power that can change public behaviour. Active collaboration between the public and private sectors and proactive regulatory approaches are crucial to unlocking the needed investments in digital infrastructure and fostering the integrity of data and being transparent about how data is used should evolve as a responsible will.