With the right regulatory settings the forthcoming liberalisation of the telecommunications regime in Myanmar has the potential to create wealth for the entire nation and unite friends and families.
Telecommunications in Myanmar
Myanmar is a country of approximately 60 million people, which is embarking on some of the most momentous political and social reforms of any country in the world. It is an ancient and historic country with a well educated, often English speaking, people, and considerable mineral and oil reserves.
It is also a country with strong linkages to Australia, including via the recently inaugurated Myanmar Business Taskforce sponsored by Asialink. However Myanmar’s telecommunications networks are obsolete and adequately serve only a tiny proportion of its population. For example, internet penetration is less than 5%. Bringing Myanmar’s telecommunications regime into the 21st century provides an important challenge for the government of Myanmar.
Enduring benefits are needed
It is crucial that the reforms to Myanmar’s telecommunications regime bring enduring and sustainable benefits to the people of Myanmar, wherever they reside or carry on business. That can only occur if the telecommunications laws and regulations strike the right balance between encouraging investment in new infrastructure, promoting vigorous but sustainable competition and ensuring that people in the more remote regions of the country still enjoy the benefits of basic telecommunications services.
Earlier this year, the government of Myanmar invited tenders from foreign telecommunications companies to joint venture with three newly formed telecommunications entities in Myanmar. Unfortunately this opportunity was not transmitted to the Australian market and no Australian company participated. This is a missed opportunity for both Australia and Myanmar.
Relevance of the Australian example
There are three reasons why the Australian experience is of relevance to Myanmar in this crucial transition to a new telecommunications regime: geography, infrastructure and regulation.
Like Australia, Myanmar’s population is spread out over a vast land with many people living in remote and rural areas. It is these people, in particular, who have missed out on the benefits of telecommunications until now. Until recently, Australia faced a similar set of challenges.
Australia is in the midst of one of the most ambitious network rollouts in the world, a fibre to the home broadband network being rolled out by NBN Co to more than 90% of premises in Australia. For that reason Australia is well aware of the many choices that surround the rollout of 21st century telecommunications infrastructure. For example, the pros and cons of fibre, copper, wireless and satellite in CBD, metropolitan and rural areas are issues that have been hotly debated in Australia over recent years.
It is important for Myanmar to ensure that the choice and blend of network infrastructure is one that best suits its social and economic needs and constraints. That choice should not be left to equipment vendors who may have a vested interest in providing particular types of infrastructures. Rather it should be a decision of government, based on the best-available independent expertise.
Australia is seen as having one of the most sophisticated and effective telecommunications regulatory regimes in the Asia Pacific region. Its telecommunications laws and regulatory bodies have served as models for countries and regions such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Like Singapore, it is also currently confronting the issues around the structural separation of the incumbent operator’s network.
Structural separation is, in principle, a good thing for competition and for consumers but there may be situations where the efficiencies of vertical integration, when coupled with adequate regulatory safeguards, outweigh the cost of separation.
Myanmar is at the dawn of a new era. A robust and competitive telecommunications regime has a huge role to play in bringing prosperity to the entire nation. However the regulatory settings must be correct or some of the benefits of liberalisation will be lost.