Telenor, Ooredoo win Myanmar nod

Norway's Telenor ASA and Qatar's Ooredoo won licences to expand telecommunications in Myanmar, one of the world's last remaining untapped markets where only about one in 10 people has a mobile phone.

Two of the one-in-10 Myanmar people who own a mobile phone. Myanmar has awarded telecom licences to Norway's Telenor and Qatari firm Ooredoo, the government committee in charge of the bids said, opening up one of the world's last virtually untapped mobile phone markets. (AFP photo)

France's Telecom SA-Marubeni Corp group was named as a backup in case one of the winners doesn't fulfill the tender requirements. There were 11 groups in the final round including Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (SingTel), billionaire George Soros and Bharti Airtel Ltd. Ooredoo was formerly known as Qatar Telecom.

"The Union Government will now enter the process of finalising the awarding of the licences,'' the committee in charge of the bids said in a statement. The licences will be awarded according to a telecommunications law that parliament expects to adopt soon, it said.

The announcement ends a six-month race that drew 91 expressions of interest to operate in the country of 64 million people. The licences are among the biggest prizes for foreign companies since President Thein Sein moved to allow greater political and economic freedom after taking power in 2011.

"It's a tremendous growth opportunity, but it will require a fair bit of investment, and returns will be long dated too," Sachin Gupta, a Singapore-based analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc, said before the announcement. "I don't think its going to be an easy exercise for anyone, but having previous green-field experience and strong local partnership should help.''

The government proceeded with naming the winners even after parliamentarians moved on Thursday to delay the announcement. Set Aung, deputy minister of national planning and economic development who is overseeing the process, said on Thursday the process would only stop on Thein Sein's orders.

Set Aung said that while he'd prefer local companies, the process complied with international practices. Four of the groups had local partners, including those led by SingTel, Digicel Group Ltd, Japan's KDDI Corp and South Africa's MTN Group Ltd.

"The playing field should be level,'' he said. "We, the technical team, aren't biased in the selection of the winners.''

Myanmar plans to boost telecom coverage to as much as 80% of the country by 2016. It has a mobile-phone penetration rate of 9%, compared to 70% in Cambodia, 87% in Laos and 100% in Thailand, the Communications Ministry said in January.

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