I believe something extraordinary is going to happen in Myanmar. The opportunities that will appear over the next one to two years are going to create some of the most important memories that the country is ever going to have, as communication technology arrives in this formerly inaccessible country. Myanmar will be able to skip all of the previous generations of technology. Fibre optic cables will link the cities, and 3G and 4G networks will connect smartphones at inexpensive prices. The country will leapfrog 20 years of difficult-to-maintain infrastructure and go straight to the most modern architecture, and it will do so at an effective cost.
When this happens, there will be a banking industry that can serve everyone, because of global payments. People will also build devices, which will have the Burmese language pre-loaded, that will provide residents of remote locations with access to educational opportunities and connectivity that they did not have before. People working hard on health initiatives in the cities will also be able to more easily reach citizens in distant and difficult environments. For these rural inhabitants, this is life-changing.
We have a chance to see how a new nation can shape itself, not just its own destiny, but also its relationships with neighbours, its economic growth and what I believe will be its extremely rapid social development, with major improvements in education and health. Young people plus technology equals prosperity. Myanmar has the young people and the technology is coming. The government has to allow the private sector to build telecommunications infrastructure. The ideal scenario is for the government to make it very easy to put fibre down the streets and on the poles, connecting the cities via private telecommunications companies.
It is also very important that the government make the 3G and 4G frequencies generally available with competition. I predict that, if this is done right, the most profitable businesses within Myanmar will be in the telecommunications industry. Here we have business that can be profitable in the near term and which will fund itself through capital investment, especially foreign direct investment, which can help build up the necessary infrastructure.
In Myanmar, the internet is used largely in English and by the elite and some students, because the prices are too high. We have to get the prices down, which occurs through competition, and we have to get cheaper phones into the market, which is occurring because of global competition.
I’m worried that, with the liberalisation of the cellular network, as prices fall the infrastructure will collapse, because there is just so much demand. I think the quicker we can get the telecommunications industry to be capital-focused and independent, the better. There is tremendous excitement about the future of Myanmar from foreign telecommunications firms. I believe that we can build the infrastructure over the next six to 12 months and, once that is in place, students and young professionals around the country will take care of the rest.
Today, Myanmar has only about 9% cellular phone penetration. It is so important to have a strategy to wire not only the cities, but also the countryside. It’s clear that there is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in the country. Developing the telecommunications industry will create a huge source of job creation in the country, and will be great for the overall economy. Education is very important, as we need to be sure to have highly educated individuals coming out of top universities, so that they can understand how to work with new tools. The government has made a courageous step to open up the country; now it has to follow through by allowing and encouraging competition to occur, because the creativity of the people of Myanmar is just about to be released.
The above is adapted from a speech given at the Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Park in Yangon on March 22, 2013.
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