Telecoms keep improving but expectations are high

The mobile race is nearly in full swing, though consumers need to be realistic as service rollouts across the country have years to go, industry observers say.

The introduction of foreign telcos has already led to visible communications improvements, with SIMs now routinely sold at K1500 and speeds and communication reliability better than a year ago.

“The competition is already waking up and shaking up the market,” said deputy telecoms minister U Thaung Tin.

“I see the rivals are still shaking hands, but I don’t know if they are going to do that behind [closed] doors,” he said jokingly during the Myanmar Connect 2014 conference in Nay Pyi Taw last week.

Yet the vast scale of the challenge facing the operators is apparent. The tower build currently under way by Telenor and Ooredoo is one of the largest rollouts anywhere in such a short amount of time, and MPT has only just begun operating with its Japanese partners after a series of complex negotiations.

Though Ooredoo has already launched, Telenor expects to do in the next few weeks – the Norwegian’s firm Myanmar CEO Petter Furberg humorously showed a slide of a blue turtle in the wake of a red hare at Myanmar Connect – and the telcos will be building more towers and adding coverage for years to come.

Public enthusiasm for better services is significant following decades of one of the world’s lowest ICT penetration rates. While much of the telcos’ plans so far have gone well, it has not been easy getting permits and building the new towers needed for top-quality coverage.

“The expectations to both Ooredoo and Telenor are both very very high,” said Mr Furberg.

“The more towers you need the bigger the challenge. In Yangon we need many more towers than in Mandalay or in Nay Pyi Taw – equally the challenge is much bigger.”

Ooredoo Myanmar CEO Ross Cormack said that one of the things Ooredoo is trying to do is promote sales in areas with plenty of coverage and capacity. While some areas of Yangon such as around Inya Lake still face coverage shortfalls, other former shortfalls in Ooredoo’s coverage such as the downtown business area have already been patched since the August 2 launch, he said.

Mr Cormack added that the coverage is working well in places like Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay, and the area around Inya Lake should be fully covered in about a month.

The two telco chiefs also say they are not taking MPT lightly. The incumbent firm announced this month it had begun its partnership with Japan’s KDDI and Sumitomo, and it is a formidable service provider in its own right.

“[It’s] very much a tough competitor, and if you have to look at most markets in the world you will find the biggest operator in the market is usually the incumbent,” said Mr Furberg.

The advantage of an incumbent is that it has had 15 or 20 years to roll out a network, meaning the new firms will have to catch up.

“Most of you know MPT as the pioneer of telecoms in Myanmar, with strong heritage and tradition,” said U Khin Maung Tin, deputy CEO of MPT under the new structure with the Japanese partners.

MPT is facing strong competition from the two global giants, and looking to improve its services. However, the structure of the partnership with KDDI and Sumitomo was difficult due to the position of MPT as part of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

U Khin Maung Tin also said MPT’s 9000-person staff would be fully retained, with many receiving training for new roles.

Myanmar is also set to have a fourth mobile operator, Yatanarpon Teleport Public Company (YTP), at a later date.

YTP business development head Daw Nilar Aye said the firm accepts that it is late to the race, but hopes to take a late-comer advantage.

“We can see what the other operators are doing and we can learn from their experiences as well as challenges and difficulties and avoid these difficulties,” she said.

Still, it is apparent Myanmar’s telecoms sector has come a long way in a year.

Ooredoo’s Mr Cormack said, “Last year was a year of huge pent up excitement about all the things we were going to be doing. And now you can see there’s a tremendous amount of movement that’s happened.”


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