Myanmar’s mobile connectivity: Building from scratch

In 2011, only three percent of Myanmar’s 50 million populations had access to mobile phones. However, in the last five years, the country has witnessed unprecedented rise and growth in mobile usage.

Since a democratically-elected government was installed in 2011, the country’s newest carriers have rapidly built infrastructure for connecting millions of new customers for the first time. This new generation of users is generating enormous demand for service, which carriers and their contractors are scrambling to meet.

When Telenor launched its services for the city of Yangon in October of 2014, it signed up more than half a million customers on its very first day. The company today stands at more than 16 million subscribers. “Our biggest challenge has been and still is to build enough towers and sites,” says Joachim Rajaram, vice president and head of corporate communications at Telenor.

Burma presents a virgin space, offering carriers and contractors a blank slate to build a network from scratch. That freedom is partly the reason why 90 companies expressed interest in the opportunity to operate there back in 2013, when the government first said it would award licenses to a handful of carriers to compete with its state-owned wireless company.

Telenor started off with two different plans for rural areas and cities. The company thought of offering 2G cellular and basic Internet service to rural areas while concentrating its 3G network in cities and towns. But consumer demand, driven by the availability of low cost smartphones and other devices that could be purchased for as little as $25 soon made this strategy outmoded.

“We very quickly realized that we (and everybody else) had in fact underestimated the rate at which customers would demand 3G,” Rajaram says. Now, Telenor has revised its plans to satisfy this “enormous pent-up demand” by offering 3G service through all of its sites. Rival carrier Ooredoo, based in Qatar, recently announced plans to launch 4G service in two major cities by the end of May.

Telenor‘s network presently includes 5,200 sites supported by a fiber backbone and it aspires to reach 10,000 sites within the next three years.

However, there is a limitation for the country’s carriers, including Telenor and Ooredoo- a promise to share any towers they erect. Conventional wisdom within telecom used to be that building and maintaining a proprietary network was key to gaining a competitive advantage. But mobile carriers have lately turned to saving money by renting space on their towers instead. Yves Monnier, chief commercial and strategy officer for Apollo Towers Myanmar Ltd. says this approach has dramatically reduced the total number of towers the country needs to build in order to offer service to all its citizens.

There are also some concerns regarding the sites for tower installation and power issues. Myanmar is a patchwork of restricted military, agricultural, and religious land. And unrest in other areas can make installation difficult.

With logistical hurdles- ownership, elevated platform construction to protect equipment from floods- to overcome, it typically takes about 45 days from the time the company selects a site for its team to complete the installation. Then there are power problems as well. By June, Apollo will have installed 1,800 new towers for Telenor, which makes it one of the biggest tower operators in Myanmar. But roughly 70 percent of those towers run on noisy generators. These sites elicit complaints from neighbors, meaning the generators must be switched off at night. This problem has led to increasing pressure on electrical companies to expand their services, too.

Source: CIOL

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