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No SIM City in Burma

Irrawaddy - September 4, 2013

Jefry Tupas, Rangoon Even with the slow-motion connections, it's still possible to get addicted to the Internet in Burma. And those who like to get their fix more quickly usually turn to a mobile phone, which in this country inexplicably allows faster online access compared to other devices.

But first, of course, one must have a smart phone. And even before that, a SIM card, or a subscriber identity module card.

That first step stops many local Internet addicts from taking the smart phone approach, encouraging them to head for an Internet cafe instead. After all, to get a SIM card in Burma, one must literally be lucky enough to win a lottery.

A SIM card enables a mobile phone to connect to a service provider, and anyone looking to buy one in Burma is required by the government to file an application. Then comes a wait of at least a month for an announcement on whether the applicant was among the chosen few new SIM card winners in a lottery-style distribution process conducted monthly by the government. Only about 100 to 120 people are chosen in each round.

It's not certain how many Burmese currently have mobile phone subscriptions. According to a 2012 report by Nomura Equity Research on Asia Telecoms, the figure can range from between 1.3 million to 2.5 million. But another 2012 report by the International Telecommunication Union, a special agency for information and communication technologies of the United Nations, says there are about 5.4 million Burmese mobile subscribers.

The reports do not say how many of these subscribers connect regularly to the Internet, but according to Radio Free Asia, "The majority of Internet access in Burma is obtained through Internet enabled mobile devices."

SIM cards in Burma are all under the care of the government-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which came up with the lottery system just this year, after being overwhelmed by thousands of applications for SIM cards. In April, the government offered SIM cards through the lotteries for about $2.

Two years ago, a person could only purchase a SIM card by parting with 2.91 million kyats (US$3,000), a price that Mon, a local journalist, described as "insane." In March, one month before the first lotteries, the government dropped SIM card prices to between 200,000 kyats ($200) and 250,000 kyats. Another option in past years was to buy a temporary SIM card, lasting one month, for about $20 or $25. In June, however, the government stopped distributing these temporary cards, which were previously available for both locals and foreigners.

While someone in the Philippines can easily get a prepaid SIM card for as low as P40, or less than $1, the majority of Burmese who do not win in the lotteries must turn to the black market, where permanent SIM cards go for about $150 to $170. Foreign tourists and expats, who are not eligible to participate in the lotteries, are forced to rent handsets and SIM cards at the airport, where state-owned Yatanarpon Teleport runs a small booth.

This writer rented a SIM for 10 days and paid $90. To activate the SIM card, a top-up call and text card was needed. Two top-up cards cost $28. For 10 days, the communication cost in Burma was $118, equivalent to two months of an unlimited data plan in the Philippines.

Even locals said this SIM card and mobile phone rental at the airport was nothing short of a money-making scheme. "You guys are being robbed in broad daylight," said a cab driver.

That could be how one former public school headmistress felt in 2006 when the government blocked her mobile phone number and confiscated her SIM card after she used her phone to share reports on the country's human rights situation. The confiscation was devastating for her, as she earned only $8 monthly at the time and had paid $3,000 for her SIM card mostly with money from her retirement fund.

A public servant for the military regime for more than three decades, she refused to succumb to the order even seeking the help of the United Nations to get her SIM card back. The SIM card was finally returned to her a few months ago, after five years of fighting the confiscation.

"When she finally got it back, she had her freedom," her son Randt (not his real name) said. "We celebrated we claimed it as our victory as well."

Meanwhile, the lotteries continue these days for cheap SIM cards. The journalist Mon said her boyfriend recently won a card for 1,500 kyats, or $150. He waited two months before being notified of his win. "Selling the SIM card for $3,000 was crazy enough," Mon said. "Now we have this lottery. I cannot believe it."

She said she was happy for her boyfriend, but she also seemed concerned about the entire setup. "We should celebrate this, no matter how twisted this policy is," she said. "But I still maintain that this is simply insane."

In March, shortly before the lottery system began and after the government reduced SIM card prices from the equivalent of thousands of dollars to a couple hundred, President Thein Sein praised the Ministry of Communications and Information for being "pivotal for comprehensive development" after the surge of SIM card sales.

"Telephone density so far only covers seven percent of the country," Thein Sein said in a statement. "It is targeted to cover 50 percent at least in 2014."

The president and former military general also called for "equitable distribution of SIM cards in divisions and states. In addition, he promised to make low-cost handsets available to the public. Indeed, there are now China-made Huawei handsets for Burmese that can be had for 22,000 kyats to 25,000 kyats, although the phones can only be used for calls and texts.

Net-capable handsets are still out of reach for most Burmese. Samsung smart phones, with prices ranging from 445,000 kyats to 520,000 kyats, and IPhone models, which can be bought from 660,000 kyats to 990,000 kyats, are popular, but only among the middle class and rich Burmese.

"People are at the mercy of the government," Mon said. "But we do not have a choice but to wait and be patient and play their game."

[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Jefry Tupas, who is one of the founders of NewsDesk (newsdesk.asia), is one of the 2013 fellows. This year's theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.]

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