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Only four percent of people inside Burma are wired up to telephone networks, rendering the country with one of the world’s lowest telephone usage rates.
The Burmese government has installed a total of 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines as of July this year, the Weekly Eleven journal said, citing statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. In contrast, neighbouring Thailand had 28 million mobile phone users in 2008, or nearly half the population.
A UN report last year found that more than half the global population now use mobile phones – by the end of 2008, 4.1 billion had mobile phone subscriptions, up from one billion in 2002.
Part of the reason for Burma’s late communications development has been the astronomical cost of mobile phones: when GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones were introduced, initial subscription fees were 1.5 million kyat (US$1,500). The average annual wage in Burma is a little over US$200.
Earlier this year however, CDMA (Code division multiple access) phones were introduced at a cost of 500,000 kyat (US$500), Weekly Eleven reported. The figure however remains well beyond the reach of most Burmese citizens.
Africa, on the other hand, has been a success story in the rise of mobile phone usage, from just one in 50 people at the turn of the century to 28 percent last year. In Rwanda, a country with a lower GDP per capita ranking to Burma and where more than half of the population is below the poverty line, 26 percent use mobile phones.
Growth of mobile phone usage has been anecdotally linked to poverty alleviation in a number of countries, and developing countries now account for about two-thirds of mobile phones in use across the world, compared with less than half of subscriptions in 2002.
In Bangladesh, the Grameen Phone microcredit scheme has created an army of small-scale entrepreneurs in rural villages who sell minutes of mobile usage to locals who cannot otherwise afford a phone. Hundreds of thousands of ‘phone ladies’ who purchased cut-price handsets now provide isolated regions with a mode of connectivity, where it had previously been too expensive to install landlines.
Use of mobile phones in poorer, rural regions in China has also soared in recent years, and in 2007 counted for half of new subscriptions to China Mobile, the listed arm of China’s largest mobile operator.
The CIA World Factbook says that while Burma’s telephone system “meets minimum requirements for local and intercity service for business and government”, it is “barely capable of providing a basic service” for average citizens.
Internet penetration in Burma is also low, at around 0.2 percent of the population, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a wing of the United Nations. The country had 218 internet providers as of 2008, ranking it 196 out of 202 global countries in terms of numbers of providers.