Smartphones Sweep the Nation of Myanmar

July 14, 2017

edwin-leeThis week we’ve taken a look at the effect mobile technology has had on Chinese businesses, both for better and worse. Of course, China is far from the only Asian nation to undergo drastic changes thanks to the rise of smartphones. From India to Indonesia, mobile technology has altered the ways that both consumers and businesspeople go about their lives. Still, perhaps no other place on the continent has been as fundamentally changed by smartphones as the country of Myanmar.

Up until six years ago, the citizens of this Texas-sized nation suffered under the brutal rule of a military dictatorship. The government imposed strict economic isolation and kept tight control over markets. As the country emerged from this decades-long ordeal, smartphones were beginning to catch on with millions of consumers across Asia. In Myanmar, though, only a wealthy elite could afford mobile devices. For instance, a SIM card for a cellphone cost as much as $2,000 on the black market. As a result, Myanmar had fewer mobile phones than any other country besides North Korea.

Then in 2013 the government finally ended the state’s monopoly over the telecommunications industry. Although the door was now open for outside investors, officials required that any potential providers had to create networks that could cover the entire country, not just cities. By 2014 three telecommunications companies had invested billions to construct cellular towers all across Myanmar. Today, more than 90 percent of the nation’s 54 million people have access to a mobile device. SIM cards now cost $1.50 rather than $2,000. Plus, people can purchase a smartphone for less than $20 and make domestic calls for about 2 cents per minute. This amazing transformation has had a major effect on a country where only 5 percent of citizens have a bank account. New apps like the domestically produced Wave Money allow people to manage their finances online rather than depend largely on cash. Only time will tell how other Myanmar-made apps and technological services will alter the nation.

Questions:

  1. How did free enterprise change Myanmar’s economy after years of strict government control?
  2. Do you think the rise of mobile phones in Myanmar will cause more citizens to get bank accounts?

Source: Philip Heijmans, “The Unprecedented Explosion of Smartphones in Myanmar,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 10, 2017. Photo by Edwin Lee.

Leave a Reply