A drop in income from overseas calls made in Burma has prompted the ruling junta to ban services such as Skype and VZOchat that allow internet users to make free or cheap international phone calls.
The announcement, issued on 10 March and signed by the head of the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraph, also warned that Burmese who continue to use such services, known collectively as Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), will be prosecuted.
A young entrepreneur who runs a computing business in Rangoon told DVB under condition of anonymity that the loss in revenue may not be the sole reason behind the ban.
He said the junta’s intelligence system “can only cover [normal] phone lines – but now [information] is going out from Gtalk and domestic phone calls and this is weakening their security”.
He added that in light of the ruling, it would only be fair for the ministry to reduce fees for international calls.
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.
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 ($US1,500). The average annual wage in Burma is a little over $US400.
Last year however, CDMA (Code division multiple access) phones were introduced at a cost of 500,000 kyat (US$500. The figure however remains well beyond the reach of most Burmese citizens.
Overseas VOIP calls at internet cafes cost around 100 kyat ($US0.10) per minute while government telephone lines charge around 1000 kyat ($US1).
“If you use a [normal] phone, you have to go and pay the bill with FEC [foreign exchange certificates] at the telephone office,” said one frustrated VOIP user. “You have to wait in a queue for about two hours and also have to exchange money, which is a real bother.”