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Myanmar's internet boom creates new frontier for services

From online education to video on demand, it is now a question of bandwidth

A crowd of festival goers jostle to film a performance on their smartphones in Yangon. (Photo by Steve Gilmore)

YANGON Myanmar is three years into a telecoms boom. Since the sector was opened to foreign competition in 2014, thousands of mobile towers have sprung up and more than 30,000km of fiber-optic cable has been connected. Mobile penetration has jumped from 10% to over 70%, while internet speeds have soared and data usage has increased 1,500 times over.

The first phase has been infrastructure. The second is services -- everything from Korean TV dramas and local pop music to medical support and education.

"You're going to see all these doctors and nurses consulting on live video," said Wai Lin Tun, the chief executive of local internet provider Frontiir, at an industry conference in Naypyitaw called "Myanmar Connect" held mid-September. "This is not 10 or 20 years away, you're going to see it happen in the next two to five years."

The country's leading tech and innovation hub, Phandeeyar, is about to welcome the next round of startups to its accelerator program. This includes an app for students to find tutors online and another allowing hospitals to access digital medical records, said Phandeeyar Chief Executive Jes Kaliebe Petersen.

Much of the industry's focus, however, is on entertainment. Malaysian video-on-demand provider iflix joined the Myanmar market in March. French cable TV channel Canal+ announced it has partnered with local media company Forever Group. Meanwhile, local players like Pyone Play and Mahar have launched local content streaming services.

"You're seeing firms buy up the rights to Myanmar movies and TV shows to provide it on a single online service," said Ye Myat Min, founder of Yangon-based tech company Nexlabs. "Musicians are looking for new platforms to stream their music."

A man selling wheat for birdfeed walks under an MPT billboard in downtown Yangon. (Photo by Steve Gilmore)

This is prompting a wave of partnerships between companies providing internet services -- including the three telco providers Ooredoo Myanmar, Telenor Myanmar and state-owned MPT -- and companies offering content.

Iflix announced a partnership with Ooredoo in June. MPT, which has joint operations with Japanese giants KDDI and Sumitomo, will soon form partnerships with "various content providers," said Yoshiaki Benino, chief operating officer of the joint operations. London-listed Myanmar social media company MySQUAR announced on Oct. 19 it had signed a memorandum of understanding with other local companies to provide free Wi-Fi on the national rail network.

BROADBAND BATTLE People in Myanmar are also changing how they use the internet, which still consists mainly of smartphone owners -- 80% of all mobile users -- on just two services, Facebook and YouTube.

A 2016 survey from think tank LIRNEasia found that less than 1% of the population had internet access through a source other than a mobile phone. But providers are hoping to change this.

"Broadband is going to explode," Frontiir's Wai Lin Tun told conference delegates. "Fixed broadband is coming and it will reach homes at an affordable price."

Prices for home broadband have already fallen by 50% to 75% in the last year, Nexlab's Ye Myat Min said. Industry executives are expecting another 50% drop over the next year or so.

One factor behind this fall is the entry of the telcos into the home broadband market to compete directly with existing ISPs. The three telcos have a collective 52 million SIM card subscriptions in a population of 53 million, and competition over data prices prompted the regulator to set a lower limit on price this year of 1.25 kyat per megabyte (less than one U.S. cent).

Average revenue per user has dropped and a fourth operator -- Mytel, a tie-up between Vietnam's Viettel and various Myanmar entities -- will enter the market in 2018.

Telenor is in the middle of a pilot project to provide fiber-to-the-home broadband in select townships in Yangon that will help it to decide "whether to go massive on this," Telenor Myanmar Chief Executive Lars Erik Tellmann told Myanmar Connect delegates. Telenor's website boasts that its prices are "five to 10 times lower" than some of its competitors'.

Lagging behind is Ooredoo, which announced on Oct. 21 it is partnering with local ISP Yatanarpon Teleport to offer fiber broadband in and around Mandalay starting from November, and elsewhere later.

MPT said in August it will start broadband services, which has triggered price halvings and speed doublings by private competitors. More competition is coming. Myanmar's regulator has auctioned a chunk of spectrum to four dedicated local broadband providers across three areas.

Global Technology has spectrum for an area that includes the capital Naypyitaw and expects to launch its service in April 2018. Amara Communications has Yangon and Mandalay and intends to launch before the end of 2017.

Signs for mobile and internet operators compete for space outside a shop in downtown Yangon. (Photo by Steve Gilmore)

BANDWIDTH BLOSSOMS Not everyone is betting on a broadband explosion. Internet speeds on mobile devices have almost doubled this year thanks to a telco-only allocation of fourth generation spectrum. The smartphone hotspot remains the preferred option for executives and students alike.

"There's not much you can do now on broadband you can't do on mobile," Phandeeyar's Petersen said.

Either way, new overland and deep-sea cables are coming. Myo Ohn is chief executive of Singapore company Campana. He said Myanmar's total internet traffic was estimated at 324 gigabits per second and that demand still outstripped supply.

That is double what it was last year, and Myo Ohn expects it to continue to double yearly. Campana, for example, is planning to have a deep-sea Myanmar-Singapore cable operation by late 2018. That connection, said Myo Ohn, would "meet Myanmar's bandwidth demand for the next 15 to 20 years." The cable would have a total capacity of 20 terabits per second -- over 60 times the country's current needs.

Until this year Campana would have been unable to offer these connections, because only the three telcos held international gateway (IGW) licenses. But just as the government broke MPT's monopoly in 2014, it broke the telco oligopoly on cross-border connections this year by issuing 11 local companies with IGW licenses.

Campana's next step after its cable is in place will be to create Myanmar's first internet exchange, said Myo Ohn. This would be a single facility at which all content and data companies operating in Myanmar could connect with each other and, through Campana's cable, to the huge internet exchange in Singapore, he said.

"That's going to help enable a whole new data ecosystem to spring up -- cloud services, content streaming and content caches -- that brings Myanmar closer and closer to the modern world," he said.

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