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Wow! Myanmar is Going Straight to Smartphones

By Wayan Vota on September 30, 2015


A year ago, I predicted that Myanmar would be a smartphone only country. I saw the confluence of cheap smartphones, savvy people, and innovative mobile network operators, and believed we were about to see Myanmar leap from a technological backwater to a digital economy leader.

Recently I wondered: how accurate was my prediction? Is Myanmar on the fast track with smartphones as I predicted, or is mobile adoption slower and more feature phone-centric?

50% Mobile Subscriber Growth in 1 Year

There are three mobile network operators in Myanmar: Ooredoo, Telenor, and MPT. Ooredoo and Telenor launched last year as competition to the state-controlled MPT, which had 10 million subscribers last year. Fast forward 1 year to August 2015 and Telenor boasts 10 million subscribers, not yet matching MPT’s 14 million subscribers, and both dwarfing Ooredoo’s 5 million subscribers.

Myanmar now has 29 million active mobile subscriptions in a country with an official population of 53 million. That’s almost 300% subscriber growth in just 1 year, and mobile phone usage approaching 50% of the population.

80% Smartphone Usage

But what kind of phones are people using? Are they smartphones, as I predicted, or feature phones as others countered? Both Telenor and Ooredoo report a massive 80% smartphone usage rate. This isn’t smartphones sales, which just passed 47% in Africa, but actual devices connecting to the MNO networks.

By comparison, the USA has a 75% smartphone usage rate, and only Singapore and South Korea have 80% or greater smartphone usage.  So tiny, once backwater Myanmar is now one of the highest smartphone usage countries in the world.

As David Madden says, “Myanmar is going straight to smartphones.”

Data for Web, Facebook, and Video

And yes, people are using them to make phone calls, Telenor reports that its voice traffic grew 90% in the first half of 2015, but data usage grew a stunning 200%. 55% of Telenor subscribers are data users on a monthly basis and web browsing consumes 43% of all data costs, followed by Facebook at 24%, and 14% for streaming video. Games at 8% and other uses for 11% round out data consumption on their network.

And all this Internet usage will just keep going up. Telenor believes that there will be more than 38 million Internet users in Myanmar by 2016, or 60% of the population online, when less that 2% was online in 2012. This has changed Telenor’s roll out strategy.

When it launched, Telenor focused on rolling out 2G networks, believing that Myanmar didn’t have a smartphone-first mindset. Now it’s only building 3G towers and focusing on increasing its network capacity to handle the data deluge.

Myanmar’s Future is Smartphones

Last August, I convened a workshop in Yangon that concluded that the future of Myanmar is mobile. We believed that by 2018, almost every household will have a smartphone, almost every person will have access to a mobile device, and most people will be online.

If anything, that prediction looks a little conservative just one year later. Myanmar is coming online faster than anyone predicted and there is a whole start-up ecosystem emerging just as fast. In a telling comment that should excite every entrepreneur, Telenor CEO Jon Frederik Baksaas said “The Myanmar economy has had more money in circulation than we had originally expected.”

And smart money is on smartphones in Myanmar.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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15 Comments to “Wow! Myanmar is Going Straight to Smartphones”

  1. Michael Riggs says:

    Wayan, thanks for the update on Myanmar. Very interesting. Any thoughts on the question “why?” is there such a fast move to smartphones? Is the data pricing very competitive (due to competition)? Is there unusually high awareness of the benefits of being online?

    Any and all thoughts are welcome.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Good question! From what I could tell there are several factors at play, but the most significant ones may be the dropping price in handsets coupled with decent competition (therefore, lower data costs and aggressive rollouts) and an underlying feeling that the people of Myanmar were missing out for so many years. A smartphone is one of the fastest and easiest ways to leap into the modern world, and considering its neighbours (India, Bangladesh, Thailand, China, etc), I expect there was already a latent understanding of how transformative mobiles can be for everyday people.

      • Steven says:

        Agree with you, Wayan – the price point for an Android is $15-$20, lower than where feature phones were when we started talking about mLearning in the first place. Myanmar – I’m here now – leapfrogged feature phones. The question for us ICT4D folks here is: what are the early data consumption patterns, especially outside Yangon?

      • People are getting aware of the benefits. I noticed that middle class working professionals are getting more and more relying on messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat to communicate rather than email and sms. There is a new taxi company called HelloCabs and they’re using Android tablets with custom app installed for arranging pickups and meter calculation. Leapfrogged the way Singapore taxis are doing – LCD terminal. Also, not many people know what a featured phone is. SIM cards are cheap and when you go to a shop to buy a handset, the sales person will recommend you the smartphones straight away.

    • Keith says:

      I suspect it has to do with the sudden drop in SIM card prices (from $1500 to $0.50) that came with the opening up of the MNO market to non-state providers. This normalized the market, and it also meant there had previously been a minimal market foothold for feature phone manufacturers (since not many people could afford a SIM card, even as incomes were rising).

      I might expect the growth numbers to flatten a little as people move away from dual-SIM phones and networks develop a bit better coverage. When I was there in January, the story was that MPT was the only real option outside of the cities, and Telenor/Ooredoo had much better data coverage.

      There are of course, other interesting implications of this, where Telenor and Ooredo are the de facto ISPs in the country, especially as Myanmar grapples with an ostensible transformation of its security apparatus and a spray of minor civil wars in the rural areas.

  2. Wayan you know that my major worry with smartphone access is always access to electricity. The World Bank says 84% of rural Myanmar homes don’t have power. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/09/16/electricity-to-transform-rural-myanmar

    How do you think this squares with your prediction?

  3. Thing is I think this just stacks the deck more and more in favour of the least vulnerable, who have the time, ability and disposable income to travel from their homes to charging facilities. Women, people with disabilities, and minorities are all going to find this harder.

    As I’ve said before, I think (electrical) power is going to be the major factor determining meaningful smartphone access (even setting aside technological literacy as a generational factor) and that predicating services on this access will contribute to rising inequality and exacerbate the digital divide for populations on the wrong side of it.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I think you make the assumption (as does the Bank) that electrical access means large-scale municipal electrical infrastructure. I’m seeing people be creative and inventive in finding and using electricity, like they are with everything else in their life.

      Will the more creative and inventive have better access than those who are not (for whatever reason)? Yes. And that’s the same for every single tool, technology, etc. We should not hold out against phones (smart or not) because they are following the same access, adoption, and usage patterns of every other human resource.

  4. Klaus Rodenberg says:

    As a Journalist I will visit Myanmar for reporting atonbout upcoming election there. What would you recommend as most reliable prepaid Operator in the Country?
    Many thanks
    Klaus Rodenberg

  5. compunuts says:

    Generally good info but one major flaw in assumption; adding three major carriers users as one balloon user base for mobile market.

    I know of almost everyone who uses all 3 carriers’ sims depending on what part of the city they are happen to be in at that current moment ( probably due to the fact that sim card prices are very affordable ).