Minding the IT gap

While mobile phones are quickly becoming an increasingly important aspect of Yangon’s social and business landscapes, the same cannot be said for large swathes of Myanmar’s rural regions.

A survey conducted in a village in the Ayeyarwady delta earlier this month illustrates the extent of the urban-rural divide: The investigation found, for example, that none of the 288 households are wired for electricity. Instead, they rely on a combination of solar and battery power, as well as that age-old standby, candlelight.

Furthermore, out of a population of just over 1400 people, only 50 residents have mobile phones. Of these, only four have smartphones that they can use to access the internet.

It is clear from this data that much work needs to be done to improve communications in rural areas, including connecting more villages to the national power grid, making phones and SIM cards available to low-income families, and providing fast, uninterrupted internet connections.

The delta survey was part of larger data-collection project being conducted by Proximity Designs, a Yangon-based social enterprise that creates low-cost products and services for rural families.

Ma Su Mon, a social impact manager at Proximity Designs who collected information from the delta village, said few people in rural areas can afford desktop computers or laptops for internet access.

“This particular village has a wireless internet connection in the school compound, so people with smartphones go there to use it,” Ma Su Mon said.

Even this small step toward wider connectivity is a recent development in the village. It would have been impossible before last year, when K1500 SIM cards were made available to the public using a lottery system. Before then, SIM cards cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

“In some villages, a few well-off people have already bought smartphones because they have seen others using them and they admire the technology. They have waited a long time for internet connections,” Ma Su Mon said.

She added that she has already seen instances where smartphones have helped enhance the business practices of people living in smaller towns.

She cited the case of a carpenter in Pakokku, Magwe Region, whom she met during another survey.

“The owner of the store where he buys his building materials always sends him lists of the prices of materials by SMS,” she said. “He shows it to homeowners because he wants to clear up any doubts they might have about whether he raised the price.”

She said wider internet access will be accompanied by faster connection speeds and lower phone prices, which will result in an overall increase in the number of IT users.

“We see potential because there are many villagers who want to use the internet,” she said.

Ma Su Mon said villagers who have smartphones and internet connections tend to go online to read the news. They also use Facebook and Viber to communicate with family members working in Yangon and in foreign countries such as Malaysia.

“Villagers with smartphones share their experiences with other interested villagers at the teashops and explain their use,” she said.

She said that in the past, when smartphones were more expensive and computers were the main tool for using IT to get information, the gap between rural and urban lives seemed virtually unbridgeable. But with technology getting cheaper, and Ooredoo and Telenor stepping in to boost Myanmar’s telecommunications sector, she hopes the digital divide between city and country will narrow.

One group working to improve computer literacy is Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), which provides basic computing courses for rural youth.

The group’s executive director, Nay Phone Latt, said young people in some rural areas are completely unfamiliar with computer technology.

“When they saw laptops and projectors, they were surprised and thought we were doing magic tricks,” he said. “We like to say the whole world is a ‘global village’, but some communities are still kept separate from the village because of their lack of technology.”

He estimated that only about 4 percent of Myanmar’s population has access to the internet.

“In some areas, we had to use generators to give people practical experience using computers, and slow internet connections often created problem for our trainers,” he said. “To become familiar with the technology, people need a place with reliable electricity and a good internet connection.”

But even urban schools have trouble teaching computer skills to children. Many have multimedia rooms, Nay Phone Latt said, but there aren’t nearly enough computers for the students.

He said teaching kids how to use computers is about far more than giving them access to the internet.

“The differences between computer-literate and illiterate children are fear, feelings of inferiority and lack of courage to do something new,” he said.

“When I taught at Inle in Shan State, I learned about these differences. The computer-literate children showed the courage to try something new when they got in touch with the world through technology.”

He added, “Computers should be on every school curriculum.”

U Phoe Kauk, a farmer from Danubyu township in Ayeyarwady Region, said many rural residents are keen to use the internet, but slow connections are a huge deterrent.

“We want to use the internet to find new ways to help our agriculture, but the connections are really bad,” he said.

Other issues include expense and lack of electricity.

“We didn’t use mobile phones in the past because they were too expensive, and we thought they weren’t useful,” U Phoe Kauk said.

But through articles in news journals and agriculture magazines, farmers started realising they could use the internet not only to connect with each other but also to learn about new farming and animal breeding techniques.

“Last year, the government started using a lottery system to give out cheap SIM cards in our township. Most people got the cards and even had phones, but when the electricity doesn’t come daily, how can we use our phones for the internet?” he said.

U Phoe Kauk said he grows limes and betel leaves using traditional methods learned from his father and grandfather, but he wants to improve his farming methods.

“Now the government is building more mobile towers in our township, and us farmers are waiting to see if we get better internet connections on our phones,” he said.

Ko Myo Min Tun, 19, a history student in Pathein, Ayeyarwady Region, said accessing the internet on his mobile phone saves him the hassle of going to internet cafés.

“Most daily newspapers and journals don’t reach rural areas because of transportation problems and low readership, so I want to use the internet to read updated news,” he said. “The problem with internet cafés is they’re full of people playing computer games, so it’s better for me to access the news on my phone.”

Many urban computer users, meanwhile, have been using the internet for a wider range of activities, including finding job vacancies and applying for scholarships.

Ko Zaw Lin Htet, 18, recently finished his pre-collegiate studies and has been using the internet to research universities and scholarship programs in foreign countries.

“When I first had internet access, I mostly went to the internet café to use Google Talk and chat with girls and friends,” he said. “But when I got internet access at home and bought a printer, I found it very useful for helping me write papers, applying to colleges and reading news blogs to improve my English-language skills.”

He added that his own personal experiences have illustrated the extent of the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

“When I travel to rural places, there’s no internet access,” he said. “It causes trouble when I’m trying to do research for papers or reply to important emails.”


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