The telecommunications sector in Myanmar is set for an unprecedented boom in access and penetration if the government does not regulate it, said Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, on his first visit to Myanmar.
Speaking at Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Park, Schmidt told an audience of students, IT professionals, entrepreneurs and civil society activists that the country must embrace transparency to develop telecoms infrastructure.
Increasing internet penetration from Myanmar’s staggeringly low one-percent level “can happen right now, right here, this year”, he said.
“The fastest development model is to have an open and transparent internet, where all voices are heard — even the bad ones. And the answer to bad ones is more speech.”
Myanmar’s internet is accessed mostly in English, used largely by the economic elite and a small percentage of students.
Schmidt said that Myanmar’s government had made a critical decision to open up the internet following the end of the military-run junta in late 2010, and that developing its infrastructure further would open up myriad fringe benefits: an accessible banking system, educational tools that increase the national literacy rate, and a stronger outreach to rural areas.
“The internet will make it impossible to go back,” he said.
“The internet, once in place, guarantees communication — and empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country.”
Mobile penetration in Myanmar currently stands at about 9%, with most mobile users concentrated in urban Yangon.
For the untapped telecoms sector to succeed, the government must avoid creating a telecoms monopoly and must allow private-sector competition, the Google chief stressed.
“The government has to make it possible for the private sector to build the telecommunications sector,” he said.
“The ideal scenario is if the government makes it easy for infrastructure. The government also has to make the 3G and 4G frequencies competitive. That’s what the government should do and [it should] try to do little else.”
In Myanmar, Google has announced plans to develop its mobile technology on the ground as the telecoms sector expands. The company plans to develop a translation application, and improve its local search and mapping applications, Schmidt said.
Google will also launch www.google.com.mm, a search portal with Burmese-language support, in the next few weeks, he added.
Google Play, the application store for Android phones and tablets, is currently blocked in Myanmar because international sanctions restrict payments to the country. However, Schmidt announced that it would be open to Android users in the near future, as restrictions on payments continue to ease.
The company’s aim for the future is to get the price point of mobile technology down and increase the volume of mobile sales to tap into Myanmar’s burgeoning Android device market.
“Students will take care of everything else. They’ll build the content and they’ll build the apps — they’re clever,” Schmidt said.
He called on Myanmar’s youth to disseminate new technology and promote the development of the telecoms sector.
“Young people and technology equals prosperity,” he said. “You have the young people, the technology is coming.”
Schmidt’s visit to Myanmar comes after a trip to India, where he told CNBC TV 18 on Thursday that “India, having been satisfied with the great success of their IT revolution, have made the same mistake many companies do — they rested on their laurels without understanding how quickly technology changes”.
Schmidt has also visited Libya, Afghanistan and North Korea this year. He described North Korea — a “personal trip” he took in January, accompanied by his daughter — as “a truly wacky place” on Friday.
The Google chief met with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw .
Thein Sein on March 1 announced a goal of 80% mobile phone penetration by 2015. He also announced that the cheapest SIM cards offered to date in Myanmar, priced at 20,000 kyat (663 baht), would be available in April, and would connect mobile users to a 3G network.
Myanmar now operates a 2G network and SIM cards are priced at 250,000 kyat (8,282 baht) for the WDCMA system while GSM cards sell for 200,000 kyat (6,626 baht).
About the author
Writer: Justin Heifetz