Burma's Mobile Market Set to Expand

By The Irrawaddy 23 January 2013

RANGOON — By the standards of most countries, Burma’s mobile phone market remains miniscule, hampered by high prices and limited access to services. Now, however, that looks set to change, as the government prepares to reduce prices and companies begin to target the Burmese market.

It has been just over two years since the price of SIM cards in Burma fell to a mere 500,000 kyat (US $580)—a third of what they had previously cost—in the first wave of telecoms liberalization in 2010. Since then, mobile phone shops have sprouted up all over the country’s largest city, attesting to strong demand.

SIM cards now cost just 200,000 kyat ($230), but they—and the mobile phones needed to use them—are still beyond the reach of most Burmese consumers. But the market could soon expand dramatically if, as expected, prices drop further later this year.

In a country where very few people have access to the Internet, devices that can be used to go online have the strongest appeal. Cheap Chinese brands now have the upper hand, as they offer reasonably good value for money, even if they aren’t of the same quality as products that dominate more developed markets such as Thailand and Singapore.

“Most people here choose Huawei, a Chinese brand, because it’s good enough to use applications and play games, and can be used to go online,” said Min Naing Soe, a mobile phone dealer who imports mostly from China. “Their phones also have a lot of accessories, which also boosts their popularity.”

According to Min Naing Soe, around 90 percent of the mobile phones in Burma come directly from China across their common border. Samsung and Sony Ericsson smartphones are also available—they’re usually imported from Singapore, as are iPhones—but they can’t compete with Huawei for market share.

“Burmese people prefer Chinese brands, even though they often don’t work properly after about a year, because they’re cheaper,” said Min Naing Soe.

While dealers anticipate a boom once mobile phones and SIM cards become more affordable, for now most phone shops survive by providing services and accessories to those who already own phones.

“Most people here know very little about IT, and few have their own laptop or home computer, so they have to come to us to install apps, games and music,” said Khaing Win, a technician at a mobile phone shop.

“Since phones sold in Burma are not covered by international warranties, we also do a lot of business servicing phones,” he added.

Despite being a long-neglected market, things are starting to look up for Burmese consumers. Last week, HTC, a major manufacturer of smartphones based in Taiwan, announced that it was releasing a new line of phones with pre-installed Burmese fonts.

Peter Chou, the Burmese-born founder of HTC, said during the launch on Jan. 14 that the move was partly motivated by a desire to boost the IT know-how of Burmese citizens. “I am very proud to sell HTC products in my native country, Burma. It is very important time to improve this country’s technological standards,” said Chou, whose Burmese name is Than Win.