Internet services in Rangoon may receive a face-lift with six private companies offering to launch fibre-optic services in the former capital of Burma.
The Myanmar Times newspaper today quoted a Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) official saying, “The companies that will offer the service are Fortune, Red Link Communications, Elite Tech, E-Trade Myanmar, Shwe Than Lwin and High Tech Princess.”
While it remains unclear when these services are expected to begin in Rangoon, the news was greeted enthusiastically by San Moe Wei, secretary of the Burma Media Association (BMA).
“This is good news for internet users,” he told DVB. “Uploading files on email and sending them outside of Burma will be much easier than before with these companies trying to provide high-speed internet.”
One aspect restricting wider internet use in Burma, which has one of the lowest penetration rates in the world, has been the exorbitant cost involved. The one-time installation charge for home consumption is approximately $US1,500, making it impossible for the average Burmese to be connected from home.
“These are funny tactics employed by the government in Burma. They hike the prices of commodities like mobile phones, second-hand cars, internet, and so on, so only a few people can own them,” San Moe Wei said.
The junta has also often faced allegations of letting its cronies set up businesses over other smaller entrepreneurs. San Moe Wei explained that the scenario wasn’t too different when it came to internet service providers.
Internet services have been available in Burma since 2000, but the junta has imposed various software-based restrictions on the use of certain websites. Even with the availability of high-speed internet, these restrictions will continue to effect internet use in the country.
Launching high-speed internet, therefore, has little potential with regard to changing the amount of information made available to civilians. However, conditions for sending information out of the closely monitored society could take a positive turn, with uploading and attaching heavy video or audio files being made possible by the high-speed service.
If these private internet service providers set up shop before the 7 November elections, it might benefit the flow of information within and outside the country. According to international media advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the junta has tightened media censorship prior to the upcoming election.
Foreign journalists and media personnel will be kept out of bounds and the domestic media environment will continue to be under high scrutiny. With reporting from inside Burma during the general election rendered nearly impossible, the emphasis shifts towards the strength of telecommunication facilities within the country, primarily mobile and internet services. And with the telecommunications authorities announcing an additional 400,000 mobile phone lines earlier this month, the prospects could be promising.
However, history gives us little reason to be optimistic. “The military is known to shut down or slow down these facilities during important times,” San Moe Wei said. The junta is known to have clamped down all internet use in the country during the September 2007 Saffron Revolution. So despite all the advances in technology, none of it could materialise when it matters.