Affordable mobile in Burma gets off to shaky start
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Affordable mobile in Burma gets off to shaky start

Earlier this month we reported the announcement of affordable SIM cards for the first time in Burmese telecommunications history. They finally became available this week, but the effectiveness of the 1,500 kyats (US$2) SIM card is questionable.

The number of SIM cards to be distributed is limited to 350,000 per month. It breaks down to average of 100 to 300 SIM cards per quarter varying on the population of the region. For instance, Yangon Division got a share of about 120,000 SIM cards.

On April 21, township and quarter welfare offices set up a lottery system where the winners would get the chance to buy a cheap SIM.

However, there have been unconfirmed reports say that some of the winners bought their SIM cards and then attempted to resell them at much higher price ranging from 20,000 kyats (US$25) to 90,000 kyats (US$112).

Many people showed up before dawn to queue for a chance to participate in lin the lottery. As a proof documentation, public has to submit their household list copy. There is a limit of one SIM card per household list.

As with most government services, the process of getting a SIM is pretty complex. Lottery winners at township and quarter offices have to buy the SIM card at specified telecommunication offices with 1,500 kyats. If the new lucky mobile users wish to have Internet access on their phones, additional 10,000 kyats (US$12.50) has to be paid to activate mobile Internet. If the SIM card is lost, the replacement of SIM card will cost 25,000 kyats (US$31). SIM cards will be replaced for free if they break due to a technical fault.

What is murkier still is the private firm managing the above SIM cards. “MECTel” was introduced with new low priced SIM cards. MEC which stands for Myanma Economic Corporation is known as military owned conglomerate which may have relationship with Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) – an infamous business firm run by the Ministry of Defence. It is unclear if MECTel has been awarded as a telco.

Lack of transparency in government’s procedures has created confusion in a country hungry for low cost mobile access. New SIM card owners have to purchase MECTel top-up cards instead of current top-up cards from Myanma Post and Telecommunication (MPT). MPT top-up cards are available at many small retail shops throughout the country while the availability of MECTel top-up cards is unclear.

Two new telecommunication operators among 12 shortlisted applicants will be announced in June. There is no information on what will happen to current MECTel SIM cards and top-up cards after services from new Telcos are in place.