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The terrain of Burma’s Internet has changed fundamentally within the space of a year. But amidst the commotion over the recent launches of the first international-led private mobile phone networks inside Burma, other significant changes have gone relatively unnoticed.
In the space of a year, the size of Burma’s domestic Internet – the number of companies and organisations who are hosting websites inside the country – has tripled. In September 2013, the number of locally hosted websites or “domains” was 300. By September 2014, the number had jumped to 900 and by November it had surpassed 1,000.
From a performance perspective, the rise of local sites is a boon for users inside the country. Locally hosted websites load and open more quickly than websites hosted abroad, as the digital information does not have to cross Burma’s notoriously underdeveloped international Internet infrastructure. Moreover, the jump in local domains is indicative of the rise of a small but real and growing Internet economy in Burma, as locally hosted websites need local companies to put (“host”) their sites online and programmers to build those sites.
Relatively speaking, the size of Burma’s domestic Internet is still tiny but the explosive growth and importantly, who is a part of it, also speaks magnitudes about the changing business landscape in the country.
The growing number of Burmese tech startups, local non-tech companies who are finally going online, and Burmese government offices who are hanging out digital shingles for the first time, are contributing to the rise in sites. But the larger number of locally hosted sites is also a digital reflection of the fact that 2013 and 2014 have set records for Foreign Direct Investment in Burma. And international companies moving into Burma are setting up local web presences.There is a common but slightly misguided assumption that mobile phone services by themselves are a relatively simple way for an underdeveloped country to leapfrog into a connected future. But, any mobile service or “last mile” technology (eg. wiMax, fiber to the home, etc) is restricted by the state of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure. In Burma’s case, new mobile phone users and new towers are connecting to a sparse and decaying fiber network that is already beyond capacity.
Coca–Cola, which re-entered Burma in 2012, has a registered and locally hosted .mm domain name, although their website is not yet operational. Japan’s Mizuho Bank, one of nine Foreign banks awarded a preliminary license to open a branch this past September, is in the same boat.
Car manufacturers Mercedez Benz and Mazda have new showrooms in Rangoon and new local online portals. And public facing websites are the not the only ways foreign companies have been registering a digital presence in Burma. The large Japanese mining and construction equipment company Komatsu, which according to reports has been operating in the country since earlier in the year has no website but has a registered .mm email server.
But the domain names that have been registered in the absence of any formal announcements regarding plans to enter Burma may eventually speak the loudest. Noteworthy newcomers include: 7-eleven.com.mm and Foodland.com.mm
When reached for comment, spokespeople for both convenience store giant 7-11 and Foodland, which operates large grocery stores in neighboring Thailand, said they currently had no plans to set up franchises in Burma.
Ooredoo and Telenor launched their new mobile services in August and September respectively.
Just like individuals connect to their Internet Service Providers at home to go online, large telecommunication companies have to connect to their global Internet service providers to link into the worldwide Internet. The more redundancy one has in fiber infrastructure, the more stable one’s Internet will be. Similarly, the more redundancy one has in global service providers, ie. the more diverse providers a company has, the more stable that company’s service will be (to a point). Because if one connection to one provider goes down, there are others to rely on.
Telenor currently has four consistent providers. MPT has six, although they are known to oddly change at random intervals. Ooredoo has just one global service provider. On Sunday, connections to 2 of the country’s global service providers went down. And one of those was Ooredoo’s only connection to the worldwide Internet; the company and customers were left completely in the dark. (The company did not respond to requests for comments on their choice to use only one provider.).
Since Telenor and Ooredoo opened for business, SIM card prices in Burma have plummeted from US$150 to $1.50 and customers have marveled at the ability to call internationally. But many have also complained about occasionally spotty, slow, and at times non-existent Internet and mobile services.
Generally speaking, Ooredoo, which launched first, has had noticeably more problems, problems that sub-contractors in the tower industry say were also inevitable given their choice to start their service with so much unfinished tower construction.“We have faced operational challenges rolling out the fiber which has resulted in delays, but international fiber connectivity is still critical for our ability to grow our subscriber base and provide good internet connectivity.”
There is a common but slightly misguided assumption that mobile phone services by themselves are a relatively simple way for an underdeveloped country to leapfrog into a connected future. But, any mobile service or “last mile” technology (eg. wiMax, fiber to the home, etc) is restricted by the state of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure. In Burma’s case, new mobile phone users and new towers are connecting to a sparse and decaying fiber network that is already beyond capacity. (So much so, that since Telenor and Ooredoo went online, Internet Service Providers in Burma have simply stopped offering new fixed-line Internet connections.)
For Telenor and Ooredoo to be able to provide the capacity and redundancy needed for stable service, many across the industry point out that the companies need to be as involved with putting up towers and tower equipment as they are with building more long-haul domestic and international fiber links.
Although Ooredoo has taken a starring role with regards to eye-catching marketing and corporate service responsibility initiatives, the company has also declined to even acknowledge any plans to beef up infrastructure.
Telenor’s spokesperson Hanne Knudsen confirmed that Telenor is in the process of building new fiber lines; Knudsen declined, however, to say when they would be ready and where their eventual international connections might go.
For now, she says that Telenor is “leasing capacity from MPT [Myanmar Post and Telecommunications] on their cables to China and Thailand and are buying capacity from the border for the international connectivity.” At the borders, Telenor, like Ooredoo and MPT, are paying for bandwidth on terrestrial cables into Thailand and China, as well as on the country’s only subsea Internet cable, SEA-ME-WE 3.
Knudsen says, “We have faced operational challenges rolling out the fiber which has resulted in delays, but international fiber connectivity is still critical for our ability to grow our subscriber base and provide good internet connectivity.”
Julian Rawle is a consultant in the subsea fiber-optic cable industry who first came to Burma to speak at the Myanmar Connect telecoms conference in 2013. He says, “The mobile operators can see that everyone’s going to want to sell them international connectivity, so they want to get their networks up and running, and they’ll discretely go out and work out the best way to provide the international connectivity that they’re going to need.”
And new international connectivity may already on the way.
In March of this year, MPT signed a construction contract to bring a new high-speed undersea cable to Burma. The South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 5 or SEA-ME-WE 5 consortium cable is projected to be completed and operational sometime in 2016.
Rawle is no longer just a bystander in what may now be more appropriately referred to as the Burmese telecoms race. He was so entranced by the liberalisation and potential in the telecom market on his visit in 2013 that he returned to the 2014 Myanmar Connect conference with a potentially game-changing proposal.
He is now working with Campana, a Singapore-based Burmese firm, to bring a private subsea Internet cable to Burma. Dubbed the “MYTHIC” Cable, the undersea fiber-optic span would plug Burma into a well-connected region in northwest Malaysia and also include a branch into Thailand for extra redundancy.According to Rawlethey have funding to start a feasibility study and to make their initial down payment on a supply contract in early 2015.
Although in the submarine cable business nothing is considered guaranteed until boats are in the water laying cables, the MYTHIC Cable has started to hit necessary milestones and Rawle projects that it will be operational “sometime in 2016, before SEA-ME-WE 5”. And there are whispers in the breeze of another private cable initiative, as well.
Consortium cable systems like SEA-ME-WE 3 or SEA-ME-WE 5 span large distances and connect numerous countries, but private cables can be implemented much more quickly and importantly for Burma, the advent of a competitive non-MPT funded cable could dramatically alter the cost of data in the country.
Currently, the price for bandwidth from Rangoon to the Thai border is more than double the price of bandwidth on the Thai side. As the owner of the only operational fiber network connecting Burma to the international Internet, MPT can charge a premium and does. The introduction of a competitive private cable would drive down bandwidth prices and consumers would feel the difference in their wallets.
Doug Madory who monitors the Internet for Dyn Research (formerly Renesys) says, if I were Myanmar, “I would take the private cable that connected me and run with it as soon as I can get it. If SEA-ME-WE 5 shows up and also offers great stuff, great. But, I think they would want to jump at getting a dedicated connection.”
Once up and running, any new international cable will upend the Internet experience in Burma. Because of dramatic advances in the technology of undersea fiber optic cables since Burma’s only undersea cable SEA-ME-WE 3 was built in 2000, a new undersea fiber connection will dissolve current constraints on international bandwidth and fundamentally alter the speed of the Internet. Moreover, analysts think that the advent of a new international undersea cable would spur rapid investment and growth in needed domestic infrastructure, much like it did in Africa.
In fact, earlier this month China Unicom reported that it finished building a domestic fiber line from the Chinese border town of Ruili through the large cities into Ngwe Saung; the new fiber-optic cable was built in anticipation of SEA-ME-WE 5, which is expected to land in the ocean town.
And other Internet “saviours” may soon be on the way.
In late October, the government finally issued long-awaited rules and regulations on how to apply for telecom licenses. Edwin Vanderbruggen from the law firm VDB Loi says that the Monday after they were issued, applicants for the new licenses were spilling out of the building in Naypyidaw.
“It was almost comical,” he said, but added that it just goes to show how strong the interest is in the telecoms sector. People in line were turning in applications to build fiber optic cables, construct Internet satellites, start new Internet Service Providers, and there were even people “who think they’ll get the same kind of license like Telenor and Ooredoo,” he said. Competition is just heating up. “It doesn’t stop with Ooredoo and Telenor. There’s much more coming.”
The biggest stumbling block to Burma’s connected future may now be antiquated and unpredictable financial regulations that are hindering cross-border finance. But almost regardless, Burma’s digital future and the race to be a part of are just taking off.
Naomi Gingold is a freelance journalist based in Rangoon who frequently writes about technology. You can read more from here at: naomigingold.com