Connecting Burma: A complex and expensive processBy Casey Hynes Sep 17, 2013 11:31AM UTC
Despite some positive developments, Internet access in Burma is still far beyond the reach of the average person
It was big news for Burma when the government awarded telecoms licences to international companies Telenor of Norway and Ooredoo of Qatar earlier this summer. The licenses will allow the corporations to come in and establish much-needed telecoms infrastructure and, in theory, make mobile and Internet services available to a much broader segment of the population than currently has access.
But will that actually be the case? Some say it won’t make a difference for many in the country, which has only begun opening up to the rest of the world in recent years, after decades of rule under a brutal military junta. The International Business Times painted a less-than-optimistic picture of the challenges the average citizen faces when attempting to secure home Internet access.
The IBT reported that getting a basic Internet connection at home requires a landline, national ID, a US$500 fee, and an approval and installation process that can take up to three months. The installation itself can cost $1,000 to $1,500 for fiber-optic Internet, on top of a $600-700 monthly fee. Those numbers would make Internet access out of reach for many in the developed world, so in a place where the IBT notes the average monthly salary is less than $83 a month, it’s completely out of the question.
ADSL connections are significantly cheaper than fiber optics, at $100 for installation and $50-70 monthly fee, according to the Philippines’ Sun Star. However, that’s still far out of reach when the monthly internet fee is more than half an average workers’ monthly salary.
In a six-part series for the Sun Star titled “Is Burma’s internet disconnectivity deliberate?”, author Jeffrey Tupas alludes to the fact that money is key to securing fast and reliable service. Both he and the IBT noted that connection speeds change dramatically depending on where you are in cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, and the cause is usually whether or not the proprietor of a place with Internet has good connections to the government.
If Telenor and Ooredoo are able to offer mobile Internet services at significantly lower costs, that could change the tide in Burma. As this blogger has noted before, greater Internet penetration could be a game-changer for human rights activists, and provide an excellent platform for low-cost education and self-driven learning.
At present, the telecoms sector is controlled by the Myanmar Post Telecommunication (MPT), and there are three heavyweight domestic companies that provide services: Red Link Communications, Sky Net MPS and Yatanarpon Teleport. All three have strong connections to the government and military.
The government has declared its aim to increase the Internet penetration rate to 80 percent by 2016. Even if it reaches that goal, questions remain about whether this will mean more open access to all sites, or if controversial or political sites will be censored. And then there is the corruption – will the government crack down on telecoms officials and businesses that are messing with connectivity speeds based on bribes?
There is, however, reason for some optimism. As international telecoms come in and provide more infrastructure and connectivity options, mobile data plans for those who can afford smartphones could help a larger number of people gain access to the Internet. Part of Facebook’s rise in populrity in Burma can be attributed to the fact that it’s easier for people to check the social media site on their smartphones than it is to go online at home or work to check emails and use the Internet. And using a mobile data plan means not having to shell out exorbitant fees to get a landline at home. The more players there are in the market, the more mobile options average people may see and be able to afford.
Facebook has become wildly popular in Burma, and has become a platform for news-sharing and educating the public about outdated and potential dangerous laws regarding freedom of expression, according to Prachatai. Under laws such as the 2004 Electronic Transaction Act (ETA), users deemed to be posting materials that harm the people or national security can be prosecuted. As one might expect, this law can be used in abusive ways to charge those who post criticism or oppositional perspectives on the government.
Facebook has also been a platform for hate speech and nationalistic rants, particularly surrounding the ongoing violent clashes between Buddhist and Muslim groups in Burma.
Rohingya Blogger published a piece by journalist Chen Shaua Fui that quoted several people as suggesting that the hate speech and antagonistic groups and material posted on Facebook may be coordinated efforts from those with financial and political support to disrupt reforms to the political system. But as some pointed out, the social media site does provide a place where regular people can conduct debates and exchange their viewpoints in a way that would certainly not have been possible several years ago. It is one step in the direction of Internet freedom, though if it is true that the government is using Facebook secretly to stir tension, one imagines there will be further problems down the line.
The issues with Burma’s Internet development go far beyond affordable access for greater segments of the population. This is still a relatively new industry in the country, and the people should be left to figure it out for themselves – to express themselves, conduct debates about current issues and laws, to determine how to deal with those who use hateful language or derail conversations. And they should be able to do so without threat of fines or imprisonment because of their statements. After all, the ongoing religious and ethnic violence, military clashes with the ethnic minority groups, and resource extraction projects that grow government coffers but leave locals in poverty are likely greater threats to Burma’s development and stability than an increasingly free and educated population.
Certainly it may seem a dangerous game to the government, as greater connectivity among the population could lead to protests and calls for greater reform and freedom. But if the Thein Sein regime is serious about opening up the country to the world, it should allow the people greater access and demonstrate that they are truly committed to bringing openness, democracy and development to the long-suffering country.