Myanmar Is Getting Wired

What happens when a country goes from less than 10% to 80% mobile penetration in two years? We're about to find out.

On June 27, the government of Myanmar will grant the first two licenses to foreign mobile companies to operate in the country. Digicel, based in the Caribbean, and Singtel, out of Singapore, have both pledged to invest billions to bring wireless coverage to 96% of the country within a few years. (The government has set a goal of 80% coverage by 2015.) They've already begun to scout real estate, hire locals, and in Digicel's case, sponsor the national football league.

After five decades of repressive military dictatorship, human rights violations, systematic violence, and isolation from the rest of the world, the sudden political and economic thaw in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar has opened the floodgates for a frenzy of innovation, as 60 million people prepare to get online for the first time. Currently, less than 10 percent of the population is estimated to have access to a mobile phone (all these numbers are estimates, since there hasn't been an official census in years). SIM cards, which are rationed by the government and sold for less than $2 each, can be bought on the black market for $250-$300 a pop. HTC, Samsung, and Huawei phones are for sale everywhere on the street.

A country rich in gas, oil, and even gold is coming back to life after being suspended in time—released, like democratic activist, national hero, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, from a kind of house arrest. Natives, returning emigrants, and foreigners alike are crowding cafes, making deals, and starting companies. There's a brand-new coworking space called Project Hub. The technology unconference called BarCamp has been held in Yangon since 2010; the one held this January was the world's largest, with more than 6,000 participants.

And as of a couple weeks ago, Myanmar even has its own social network, Squar. Cofounder Rita Nguyen, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam to Canada, worked in community management and marketing for Electronic Arts. She's been traveling to the region since 1995, but she visited Myanmar for the first time in January. "It was really very clear immediately that there was something special going on," she said.

Although Facebook is already gaining in popularity, Nguyen believes there's a place for a Burmese-language and mobile-native site that connects locals to each other and to useful local information—"Survival stuff," she calls it, like where to buy diapers. She blew through her initial fundraising target in a couple of weeks, a testament, she says, to the enormous interest in the marketplace.

Obviously the country has an uphill climb to be truly welcoming to entrepreneurs, to say nothing of reaching the prosperity of a Vietnam or a Singapore. Nguyen's development shop is located in Vietnam because of the dearth of programmers in Myanmar. Both bandwidth and real estate are outrageously expensive—like "Hong Kong prices in downtown Yangon," says Nguyen. There are many lingering political hurdles, and there's troubling anti-Muslim violence and unrest. Still, there's an unmistakable giddiness in Nguyen's voice as she talks about the opportunities here. "Sixty million people falling out of the sky—you're not going to see that again in our generation."

[Image: Flickr user Michael Cory]

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