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This is what it looks like when a country gets mobile phones

August 15, 2014
August 15, 2014

Just five years ago, mobile phone penetration in Myanmar stood at 1%. By 2013, it had already shot up to 13%. The government wants to drive that number north of 75%.

Meanwhile, the price of a SIM card dropped from $3,000 to about $260. This month, Qatar’s Ooredoo, a mobile operator, started selling SIM cards for 1,500 kyat ($1.50). Here’s a picture from outside the Ooredoo store in Mandalay a day after it opened:

Scenes like this are not uncommon when previously closed countries open their doors for the first time. When the first McDonald’s opened in the Soviet Union in 1990, thousands of Moscow residents lined up at the Red Square for hours to taste the mythical Big Mac for the first time. Those scenes repeated themselves six years later when McDonald’s hit India.

Mobile phones are arguably a more useful import than hamburgers, but they similarly bring with them cultural shifts. Ooredoo’s inaugural offer includes a limited amount of free Facebook data with all its internet plans, part of Facebook’s plan to convince new internet users that its platform is the way into the mobile web. Ooredoo also offers chat packs for Viber, a messaging app now owned by the Japanese giant Rakuten. Such packaged plans are common in other parts of the poor world, and are finding their way to Western markets as well (paywall).

Google has also been busy maneuvering itself into Myanmar’s online infrastructure. Indeed, everybody is salivating at the thought of getting into one the last three major unconnected markets (Cuba and North Korea are the others).

Ooredoo rolled out its service in a handful of countries on Aug. 2. Today, it will add another couple of dozen, and cover much of Myanmar’s heartland by the end of the year. Norway’s Telenor will start its services there later this year.

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