“No SIM City, this”

Foreigners arriving Burma can rent this analog mobile phone and a non-data-capable SIM for $70 for 10 days.Foreigners arriving Burma can rent this analog mobile phone and a non-data-capable SIM for $70 for 10 days.
Foreigners arriving Burma can rent this analog mobile phone and a non-data-capable SIM for $70 for 10 days.

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 the 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 or subscriber identity module card.

[This ia the sidebar story to the main article: Is Burma’s ‘Disconnectivity’ Deliberate?]

That first step, however, is what stops many a Net addict here to just give up and head for an Internet café. After all, to get a SIM card in Burma, one must literally win a lottery.

Nowadays in Burma, securing a SIM card (which enables a mobile phone to connect to a service provider) means first filing an application with the government. Then comes a wait of at least a month for the announcement on whether or not one has been lucky enough to be among the chosen few new SIM card owners.

Lucky—yes, one must be a lucky local to get a SIM card as the government conducts a lottery-style distribution process for SIM card applicants every month. Only about 100 to 120 are chosen during 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 just between 1.3 million to 2.5 million. But there is another 2012 report, this time by the International Telecommunication Union (a ‘special agency for information and communication technologies’ of the United Nations), which says there are about 5.4 million Burmese mobile subscribers.

The reports don’t say how many of these subscribers connect regularly to the Internet, but according to Radio Free Asia, “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 Post and Telecommunication (MPT). It came up with the lottery system just this year, after being overwhelmed by the thousands of applications for SIM cards.

Last April, the government had offered SIM cards that cost around $2 to the public.

Just two years ago, SIM cards could be had in Burma only if one could part with 2,910,000 kyats or about $3,000. Mon, a local journalist, described the price as “insane”.

No wonder then that people fell over themselves trying to buy the $2 SIM card – in so large a number that an apparently unprepared government thought a lottery would be a good way to go about distributing it.

But then the government suddenly stopped the lottery for the cheap SIMs. No one can actually tell exactly when that decision was made, but by June, neither locals nor foreigners could find one.

“I don’t know what happened,” said a businesswoman downtown Rangoon. “The government just stopped it—no explanation. The government never explained.”

And so while one could easily get a prepaid SIM card in the Philippines for as low as P40 or less than a dollar, the Burmese were back to having to fork over between $150 to $170 for one—that is, if someone at the black market was willing to sell a SIM.

Foreign visitors were forced to rent handsets and SIM cards at the airport, where the 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. This writer bought two top-up cards amounting to $28. For 10 days, the communication cost while in Burma was $118, equivalent to two months of unlimited data plan in the Philippines.

Even locals said this SIM card and mobile phone rental at the airport—and operated by a government-owned company—is nothing short of a money-making scheme.

A ‘product value and check list’ says SIM card rental for data costs $100, an analog handset for $30, a charger for $5, battery for $5, adapter for $1, bag for $5, and something called ‘hand free’, $5.

“You guys are being robbed in broad daylight,” said a cab driver.

That could be how the mother of Randt (not his real name) felt as well when in 2006 the government blocked her cell phone number and then confiscated her SIM card. This was after Randt used her mobile phone to share reports on the human rights situation in Burma.

The confiscation shattered the former public school headmistress who was then earning $8 dollars a month. The $3,000 she had paid for her SIM card had come mostly from her retirement benefits.

But Randt’s mother, who had served the military regime for more than three decades, refused to succumb to the order of the day. She fought it out and found herself even seeking the help of the United Nations to get her SIM card back.

Randt said the SIM card was finally returned to his mother a few months ago, after five years of fighting it out — and after the Burmese government began instituting reforms.

“When she finally got it back, it was as it she had her freedom,” Randt said. “We celebrated—we claimed it as our victory, as well.”

In the meantime, it looks like the government is also back to selling cheap SIMs. Mon’s boyfriend, for instance, recently won a SIM card, paying 1,500 kyats or $1.50. He waited two months before he was notified as being one of the winners in the SIM lottery.

“Selling the SIM card for $3,000 was crazy enough,” commented Mon. “Now, we have this lottery. I cannot believe it.”

She said she was happy for her boyfriend. But she seemed to be unhappy about the entire setup. “We should celebrate this no matter how twisted this policy is,” Mon said. “But I still maintain, this is simply insane.”

To be sure, there was an earlier drop in SIM card price, although the cost was still pretty steep. In March, government media had announced the distribution of “cheap” SIM cards that cost 200,000 kyat or $ 250 to 250,000 kyat $312.50. Foreigners were also allowed to buy these lower-priced SIMs.

Before the end of March, President U 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 press release issued by his office. “It is targeted to cover 50 percent at least in 2014.”

The former military general also called for “equitable distribution of SIM cards in regions and states”.

In addition, he promised to have low-cost handsets to be available to the public. Indeed, there are now China-made Huawei handsets for Burmese that can be had for 22,000 kyats ($22.70) to 25,000 kyats ($25.80). These phones can be used only for calls and text, though.

Net-capable handsets are still out of reach for most Burmese. Samsung smart phones, with prices ranging from 445,000 kyats ($459.24) to 520,000 kyats ($536.64), and IPhone models, which can be bought from 660,000 kyats ($681.11) to 990,000 kyats ($1,022), 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. The article was originally published on http://newsdesk.asia in September 2013.]

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