Ever traveled to Myanmar (Burma)? Ever traveled outside of major tourist destinations in Myanmar? Ever tried to call home from Myanmar? Ever got the feeling of total cut off from the rest of the world? Ever experience frustration for not being able to call home and know what is happening at home? Welcome to Myanmar.
Telecommunication in Myanmar is probably the lowest in South East Asia. Auto telephone exchange are available only in some towns. Many towns in Myanmar still don’t have auto telephone exchange and still have to rely on manual exchange. Myanmar is probably the only ocuntry on earth with manual exchange. For trunk call, there are a few telephones (about 3 to 6 phones) in these towns installed at the manual exchange and at the Public Call Outlets (PCO). Some towns in remote regions have no land lines connected to the main communication hub, and have to rely on satellite links. For example, Mindat from Chin State has only six telephones using satellite links. In many instances, these phone lines are not very reliable and the voice quality is also bad.
Some towns and cities have autometic axchanges. However, due to limited trunk call lines to the central communication hub, call a trunk call or overseas calls are sometimes difficult. I once had an experience of trying to call to Yangon from Kalaymyo. It took me the whole morning to get the line. It really is frustrating.
Even in cities like Yangon and Mandalay, getting a fixed land telephone line is very difficult. I should say extremely difficult. Very few new land lines are installed in Yangon and Mandalay, and usually, the old lines are already full. New applications for a telephone line are almost always unsuccessful. This created a black market activity of reselling fixed land line telephones in cities across Myanmar. A black market price of a land line will cost as much as 4,000,000 kyats (more than US$ 3,000). After that, you still have to pay some money to the staffs at the telecoms office for the installation (it is illegal to sell back your phone line). Even then, it is still very difficult as very few people want to sell the phone lines, and even if you can buy, if you are in a different area, you cannot install a line as there is no vacancy at the exchange in your area. This really is a very bad situation. This leaves the only option, mobile phones.
Mobile phones were first introduced about 15 years ago. First generation mobile phones were very heavy, old, slow, noisy and analog. It was only available to a very few high ranking government officers and foreign diplomats. A few years later, government started selling CDMA mobile phones to the general public. However, there was a long waiting list, and only available to government officers and companies. Then come the GSM. It is faster, newer with better voice quality. The official selling price was 500,000 kyats (US$ 2,000 at that time). As usual, it was available only to government officers and those with connections in the government telecoms office. The official price was kept on increasing, to 1,000,000 kyats (US$ 1,000 at that time), then to 1,500,000 kyats and finally to 2,000,000 kyats (around US$ 1,500). This created another black market for mobile phone cards. The SIM cards are resold at twice the official price.
To solve the problem of telecommunication in Myanmar, some companies now offer a service of semiautomatic telephone exchange to housing projects, apartments and condominiums in Yangon and Mandalay. They install a few land or GSM phones, and set up a small PABX exchange. This way, the houses and rooms can share the few available telephone lines at a cheaper price.
The latest introduction of prepaid GSM mobile phone cards to the general public at an affordable price might change some of these landscapes. However, these prepaid GSM phone cards have thier drawbacks too. They are sold at US$ 20 each to anyone with ID card or passport, and easily available in supermarkets and phone shops in Yangon and Mandalay. They are currently quite popular now, but with no expansion in the current GSM infrastructure, the lines are expected to be congested soon.
Myanmar now has 416,000 fixed line phones with a density of 8 phones per one thousand population.