Yoma Strategic Holdings (YSH) announced that its joint venture, Digicel Asia Holdings (DAH), has agreed to partner with Qatar-based Ooredoo in the development of telecoms towers in Burma.
“We are delighted to play our part in such development and look forward to working closely with the Government, authorities, telecommunications operators and other local companies,” YSH chairman Serge Pun stated in a press release on Monday.
Serge Pun has teamed with Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien to form DAH. O’Brien’s Jamaica-based Digicel, which operates in 31 countries, lost out to Ooredoo and Telenor in Burma’s initial round of telecom licencing bids in June 2013, but has found new opportunity in the roll-out process of Burma’s communications development.
The two licences awarded in June granted 15-year operating permits and drew over 90 letters of interest internationally. Results of the bidding were highly anticipated and not without controversy.
Burma’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology fielded requests from the lower house of parliament to postpone licensing until a stalled telecoms bill was approved, which eventually happened in late August, two months after bidding had closed.
Just after the government’s announcement that the licences would be awarded to Telenor and Ooredoo, members of the radical Buddhist movement 969 decried the decision to award such a coveted license to a Muslim-owned company. The 969 movement’s leading advocate, radical Monk Ashin Wirathu, issued public statements calling for a boycott of the company.
The Ministry recently announced a 2 December deadline for bids on 3 Myanma Post and Telecommunications Tower Partnership licences, one now likely to be awarded to the newly formed DAH.
“Rapid site/ tower roll-out and reduced cost per site will be key for these operators,” read the Ministry’s official call for tenders.
Last July, following the initial licences and preceding passage of the new telecoms bill, President Thein Sein announced to parliament that he aims to increase mobile phone usage in Burma by 80 percent by 2015.
The most recent government statistics from 2012 estimated that only around 8 percent of Burma’s approximately 60 million people had access to mobile phone services, and internet penetration in Burma hovered around one percent, making it one of the least connected countries on earth.
One major inhibitor has always been the price of SIM cards, which until 2010 were ludicrously priced up to US$2,000 under government conditions. A recent cheap SIM lottery offered limited SIM cards to lucky winners at an affordable price of around US$2, many of which end up on the black market with a re-inflated price tag.
While the attempt to fast-track the telecom sector will likely bring SIM prices down in a hurry, much of Burma’s poorer and less-connected population has shown concern over the pace of development, as infrastructure necessary for implementation is not yet in place.
Burma Environmental Working Group, a Thailand-based alliance of ethnic organisations from Burma, appealed to Telenor in late September with a public letter reading: “We would like to learn more about how you intend to work in what is currently a highly fraught context.” The letter requested a written response from Telenor with answers to ten pointed questions about their development plans.
Telenor has acknowledged receipt of the letter but has not yet issued a response.
As the Ministry prepares to “rapidly deploy a best-in-class network” with its two newly selected foreign operators, Digicel Chairman Denis O’Brien declared, “We are delighted to work with Ooredoo and to help develop a high-quality telecommunications network across the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, contribute to the growth of the Myanmar economy, and benefit Myanmar citizens across all of the country’s states, regions and union territories.”