Call Me, Maybe? Rangoon Becomes SIM City

By Yen Saning 1 August 2014

RANGOON — The streets of downtown Rangoon were abuzz on Friday as consumers, who were for years deprived of affordable mobile telecommunications, queried scores of handset shops and queued up eagerly at those offering long-awaited SIM cards from the Qatari telecoms firm Ooredoo.

Until last year, the state monopoly Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) had a stranglehold on the market, resulting in a supply-demand gap that meant exorbitant SIM card prices and, eventually, the implementation of a monthly lottery that still left Burmese citizens wanting.

On Friday, consumers descended in droves on mobile shops carrying the Ooredoo advertisements that have plastered the commercial capital for months.

Ooredoo, along with Norwegian firm Telenor, won a license to operate a mobile network in Burma in June 2013, and has spent the last 13 months erecting mobile towers and marketing its brand ahead of the launch of its services.

This week may well mark the beginning of a telecommunications revolution in Burma, as

Ooredoo became the first foreign firm to see its SIM cards on the streets of one of the world’s most poorly connected nations.

Telenor has said it hopes to put SIM cards into the market later this year.

The official Ooredoo launch is expected to take place on Saturday, the date that most phone shops were told sales would begin, but an official announcement from Ooredoo has not yet been made.

A trickle of SIM cards into the market began in central Burma earlier this week, with limited sales in Mandalay and Naypyidaw.

On its official Facebook page,Ooredoo Myanmar on Wednesday posted: “We are excited about all of the activities in the market. As is standard practice, we are currently filling the retail channel with SIM cards as we prepare to sell SIM cards. We will be charging 1,500 Kyats [US$1.50] for a SIM card so make sure you do not pay anymore. We look forward to connecting you soon.”

Despite that stated price, some mobile shops on Friday had made arrangements to boost their handset sales, requiring consumers to buy a mobile phone in order to get an Ooredoo SIM card. Other shops were selling the cards at prices as high as 15,000 kyats.

The Nilar Mobile Shop in downtown Rangoon said it would start selling Ooredoo SIM cards at 5 pm on Friday but that the card would not be usable until Saturday. Each person presenting a copy of his or her National Identity Card will be allowed to buy one SIM card.

A man in his 50s outside the Nilar Mobile Shop said he had heard that the SIM cards would not be able to call numbers on the GSM and CDMA networks operated by MPT until Aug. 15, confining them to calls and SMS messaging only with other Ooredoo SIM owners. Despite the rumored restriction, he was still hoping to get an Ooredoo card of his own.

Jonny mobile shop said it had sold out of more than 400 Ooredoo SIM cards on Thursday and Friday. More SIMs are on order and will be available on Saturday, a sales representative said. Disappointment was evident in conversations with people milling about the shop at the close of the work week.

Another mobile shop, Similar Mobile, claimed their ration of Ooredoo SIM cards had been exhausted, but curiously, a promise was proffered to anyone buying a handset from their shop: one Ooredoo SIM card included. Handsets compatible with Ooredoo SIMs were starting from 80,000 kyats at Similar Mobile on Friday.

The Pan Yoe Ma shop on Bo Sun Pat Street was selling Ooredoo SIM cards at more than three times the price stated on Ooredoo’s Facebook page. The 5,000 kyats price tag did not stop eager consumers from lining up to purchase the chips.

One young man said that although he already had an MPT SIM card, he was buying its Ooredoo counterpart because he had heard that the mobile Internet connection with the latter was much faster.

The Pan Yoe Ma shop said Internet usage would be billed at 25 kyats for 1 MB of data, with Ooredoo providing 20 MB of Internet for free per day until Aug. 15. Users will only be able to use the free mobile credit provided until Aug. 15, after which they will be able to purchase top-up cards allowing for unfettered data usage.

Amid the excitement of Friday’s SIM sales, Ooredoo’s unofficial foray into the market was not without its problems.

A person who bought an Ooredoo SIM and handset for 60,000 kyats from the Lulay Mobile Shop complained that while the phone was in service when he bought it, it had since lost its connection to the network.

A young girl who bought an Ooredoo SIM card for 1,500 kyats on Thursday in downtown Rangoon said she would mainly use her SIM to make calls, though she did not yet own a handset to do so.

“Although MPT is sold for 1,500 kyats, the lucky draw has taken a long time. I’ve applied but never won.”

The SIM card supply shortage under the MPT monopoly had spawned a black market in Burma that saw its cards selling for as much as $200 until only recently. With rumors of Ooredoo’s impending entrance into the market, however, the black market price in recent weeks put cards in callers’ hands for as low as $28.

“Even if MPT costs about 10,000 or 20,000 kyats because the price has dropped, this one [Ooredoo] costs only 1,500—that price gap is quite big,” she said, explaining her preference for an Ooredoo SIM.

Ooredoo will hold a press conference in Rangoon on Saturday “to provide information on happy and exciting developments with us,” but more specific information on what the subject of the event will be has not been revealed.