Gear We Like
Mobile in Burma / Myanmar – It’s Complicated
If you’re an active traveler, you have probably found that insane roaming costs from your local provider mean that buying a SIM card is the best to stay connected in foreign countries. While some places make it simple with great service and cheap prices, it’s not quite that way in Burma / Myanmar.
In the ever-so-complicated case of Burma, you have high prices, limited access, temporary numbers, and a rather terrible system set up by the government agency (MPT) to blame for it all. Here’s a primer.
Background on Mobile in Burma / Myanmar
Without going into the complicated history of the country, a little look back at mobile in Burma / Myanmar is an interesting story to say the least.
In January 2009, a SIM card was priced at about $1500 USD. To put that in perspective, the average yearly salary in the country is about $250 USD. Over time, the price has dropped some. In early 2012 the price was roughly $500 USD, and as of April 2012 if was halved to 200000 kyat (approximately $250 USD). Needless to say, mobile phone access hasn’t been for the average citizen.
Also in 2009, MTP (Myanma Post and Telecommunication, the government telecom company), introduced “prepaid” SIM cards, commonly called an “FEC SIM”. For $20 USD you can get yourself a GSM SIM card, but there were (and still are) a few catches, including a one-month expiry of the card, and no top-ups available. That means you need to buy a new SIM card every month, each with a brand new phone number.
Why are SIM Cards So Expensive
The government-controlled MTP has changed directions on mobile services many times over the years. First, installing CDMA networks (4) with equipment from China, and in recent years, GSM networks (3) along side, both covering several different technologies and frequencies.
A local mobile expert told me that the reason that the prices are so high for SIM cards is that the government wanted to cover costs associated with building the network with SIM card sales. As you might already know, this is the opposite strategy used in most of the world, where the costs for the infrastructure are financed up front, and recouped over time.
The new head of the telecom department of the government appears as though he wants to change the model for the better. It was explained to me as a bus analogy.
“When you buy a ticket to ride the bus, you aren’t expected to buy the bus first” said Min Lwin, a local mobile enthusiast in Yangon. “No one would be able to ride the bus”
Roaming? Not Yet…
With the country being closed off due to sanctions for so long, it comes as no surprise that you cannot use your SIM from another country in Burma / Myanmar. That does appear to be changing though.
Recently we have seen pilot programs allowing SIM cards from Vietnam and China to roam. This has coincided with local gems emporiums in the country (big business in Burma / Myanmar), hosting investors from those other SE Asian countries. There are plans to allow roaming from other ASEAN countries in the near future to increase foreign investment.
The government here says it is committed to bringing down prices, but at the same time, it appears to be in no rush. There is talk of the “permanent” SIM card prices halving in the next six months, but even then, at more that 100000 kyat ($125USD), that would put them more than 40 times higher than the cost for a SIM card in neighbouring Thailand.
In January 2012, a private company named Shwe Pyi Ta Khun revealed that it intended to sell mobile phone connections for as low as 5000 kyat ($6 USD) in March. MTP denied the proposal saying that it didn’t meet existing regulations, and more time would be needed to upgrade the mobile network. Protests in Yangon led to 11 people being detained for questioning.
There is no question that the people are eager for mobile prices to come down. In 2010, the Burmese government had installed 1.3 million mobile phones, with plans to increase that to 30 million by 2017. For most citizens, the time when they can afford to have their own phone won’t come soon enough.