While it may be commonplace these days to see people whipping out their smart phones in tea shops across Myanmar, just four years ago the country relied on a single state-owned carrier, while a single SIM card would set you back $250. Then, something extraordinary happened when Myanmar announced in 2013 that it was ending its state telecom monopoly.
A frenzied bidding war ensued that resulted in two wholly foreign-owned operators, Qatar's Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor, entering an untapped market with more than 50 million potential customers. The price of a SIM card dropped to $1.50, and the initial batch sold out so quickly that black markets immediately sprung up in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, according to the Gulf Times.
But with rural areas accounting for around 65% of the country's population, the newcomers to Myanmar's markets had far bigger problems than connecting its main cities. They would need to invest billions of dollars and overcome countless logistical challenges to connect the country's extreme south with the rugged, mountainous terrain of the north and everything in between.
Fast-forward to January 2018, and there were nearly 54 million mobile connections, 16 million active mobile internet users, and smart phones accounted for 73% of total web traffic, according to the Digital in 2018 in Southeast Asia report. Though many of these users had no idea how to operate their shiny new devices, the future had arrived for a broad swath of the population.
Now, the Myanmar Army-backed telecom Mytel has entered the fray as the fourth competitor, shelling out $1 billion prior to its June 9 launch and keeping foreign telecoms on their toes waiting to see what effect this will have on the playing field.
One operator that has taken a different approach to penetrating the market has been Ooredoo, who made the bold move to launch with strictly 3G services targeting a higher-income demographic, but later shifted its approach.
“We want to be a 3G network not only for the classes, but also for the masses,” former Oordeoo Myanmar CEO Rene Meza told the Myanmar Times in 2015.
Despite having the smallest share of the market with around 9.5 million customers, when it comes to speed, Ooredoo has gained a reputation as leading the charge in Myanmar as the first operator to introduce 4G services.
In an exclusive interview with Mizzima last month, Ooredoo Myanmar's recently appointed CEO Vikram Sinha talked about what the past four years of intense competition have meant for the country, and what his hopes are for the next phase in the company's development.
I understand you came on as chief executive officer for Ooredoo Myanmar at the beginning of the year after serving as managing director for Ooredoo in Maldives. Has it been easy to adapt to this new environment and are you enjoying your new role?
One thing I can tell you, I've been out of my home country of India for the last 10 years, and out of the five countries where I've stayed, Myanmar stands out, and it stands out mainly because of its people and the whole culture around positivity. The moment you land you feel welcome, you feel that you are at home. So I've been totally enjoying it. It has been a challenging and good journey I can say.
Did you ever expect that Ooredoo would become such a huge player in Myanmar?
We are a multinational company with a presence in around 10 countries with revenue of close to $10 billion and close to 150 million customers, and Myanmar was our greenfield project. We take Myanmar very seriously, because when we came in our whole focus was what we can do to make sure that we take the whole sector. There were very few countries like Myanmar which had such low teledensity. And the rest is history. In the last four years, all of us have seen how a multinational company can contribute to the growth of the sector. So, I think from a portfolio point of view we are very serious about Southeast Asia, and we stay focused on that.
What was it like coming into this previously undeveloped “greenfield” country?
When we started in 2014, when the government opened it up, there were two foreign operators that got licenses and we were very proud to be picked from companies from all over the world. What I'm more proud of is what Ooredoo has been able to do to the whole sector and to the country. Before 2014 August when we were the first to launch, a SIM would cost you between $250 to $300. It was something which was only for the elite class. Now it has become a product for everyone, and we very strongly believe that everyone should have access to the internet and we have been able to fulfill that commitment to the country to a great extent.
The last five years appear to have been something of a whirlwind in terms of how mobile phone companies have started from scratch and expanded to the four corners of Myanmar. How does this compare to the roll-out in other developing countries?
Ooredoo has a very significant role to play here. All developing countries, they take a step approach. They start with 2G, and then in certain pockets you will have 3G, and when the market matures they reach 4G. What Ooredoo did was extremely bold. We said that we'll start with nationwide 3G from Day Zero, when the penetration and teledensity were very low. What this did is it triggered the whole industry, including our competition, to scale up. However, by doing 3G only we were missing some of the rural 2G customers, and as we went long we felt that we needed to make sure we gave choice to people. So last year we made sure that we brought 2G also, but our approach of starting with 3G nationwide and then doing 2G after three years of operation nationwide has really helped the country.
We have 2G nationwide, we have 3G and we are the largest for 4G also. It has been a good learning experience for us, but the key is that you have to be very close to the market, you have to understand the rural segment.
What are Ooredoo's plans for maintaining long-term competitiveness in Myanmar with other telecoms like Mytel coming onto the scene?
If you look at our footprint in our markets like Indonesia, they are equally competitive, so we are very much used to competition. The way we want to focus is to make sure that we give our customers very affordable internet, and we want to make sure that whether it is urban, semi-urban or rural, they get a very consistent and high-class network experience. From affordability, the focus is moving to experience, and if you look at this country it has taken a quantum jump. In simple terms, we want to make sure that we are very focused on customer experience, giving them a very reliable and consistent network, whether it is farmers, whether it is students, or the business community.
You've recently strengthened your partnership with ZTE. Can you tell us about that?
We work with multiple global partners, and when it comes to partnerships we have Nokia and ZTE, and we also work with Huawei. With ZTE, four months back we tested 4G Pro, which is one step behind 5G, so we are very committed to making sure when it comes to technology that we work with our partners and stay ahead of the curve. That triggers the whole push for everyone to make sure that Myanmar is always at the forefront when it comes to bringing technology to the country.
Do you consider Ooredoo to be leading the charge among the telecoms operating in Myanmar?
Yes, look at the last three-year trend. We started with 3G only, we brought 4G first. Today we have the fastest and largest 4G network in terms of footprint and townships. As I speak, 253 townships are covered by 4G, and by October we are targeting 300 townships, so we are very clearly focused in terms of making sure that we lead on those things.
A key demographic is Myanmar’s youth. Can you tell us about how you're engaging young people with the Leo Messi “Enjoy the Internet” campaign?
We have a long-standing relationship with Leo Messi going back to 2013, and from that time onward we have been coming up with campaigns which are very youth-focused. This latest one started before the World Cup, and we are very happy with the results. This was the first time where we had Leo with a local celebrity, Zenn Kyi. This approach was very much welcomed by the youth segment. And we are trying to focus on making sure that through these campaigns we help youth understand how they can enjoy the internet, and what more they can do.
You recently rolled out something called “The More You Speak, the More Ooredoo will Donate”, with Ooredoo donating 1 kyat for every minute of call time. What is the full scope of this programme?
This campaign is very close to my heart. When we look at our CSR, we have two big pillars. One is health, and secondly education. We very strongly believe that Ooredoo needs to do significant work when it comes to education. So through this campaign we have already covered close to 23 monasteries, and we continue to do that. We really want to make sure that we contribute in the community in which we operate, and we feel that the best way to contribute is by working on monasteries and working on education and using technology to make it more sustainable. I get a lot of support when it comes to CSR from my group and board, and also from my employees. They personally volunteer. They're willing to walk that extra mile when it comes to CSR projects.
For education, we have already committed close to 1 billion kyat, and out of that – I need to check with my team – the number is close to 400 million kyat that we have donated. And we work with the regional government in terms of making sure it goes to the places where it matters. On health we are working with UNOPS. We have committed $3.5 million, and 17 health centres are being built across the country. In the coming months you will see more and more coming from our side. Personally, I'm a very strong believer of karma. You don't need to worry, you just need to do right things and it will come back to you.
How do you view the future for Ooredoo in Myanmar?
The past fourth quarter was very good for us. If you look at the published report, there's a lot of momentum in terms of growth of revenue and customers. We want to build on that, and our focus will be to make sure that not only urban, not only Yangon and Mandalay, but we'll be expanding our focus on rural Myanmar. We are working with our partners on Internet of Things and how IoT platforms can help on education. So this is how we are looking at it, but the most important thing is we are very committed to the development of Myanmar. The country has demonstrated, especially the youth of this country, that it has the capability to take a quantum jump. So Ooredoo wants to be a key enabler for growth in the country when it comes to its digital journey.
What was Ooredoo's experience as an official sponsor for Myanmar of the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
For this World Cup we did something that Myanmar had never seen by making live streaming possible. We partnered with Sky Net, and through our app people across Myanmar, whether you are in Mon or Kachin or Rakhine or Ayeyarwady or Bago, can watch football. So through this technology we demonstrated that a World Cup event should not be only for the few, but it should be for everyone. We saw close to 250,000 people watching it and enjoying it, and we felt proud that we brought the World Cup to rural parts of Myanmar. It was not confined to urban areas.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As I told you, it has been an incredible run. What gives me a lot of confidence is the youth of this country. They are so hungry to learn more and adapt to new things, and that gives me confidence to keep bringing new things. The other thing which gives me a lot of confidence is the chance to have a positive impact on the lives of farmers with technology. That is where I am working with the partner ecosystem to make sure that we come up with platforms, we come up with things which really help a farmer to earn more, to be more productive. I think overall as a team we are very confident and we are very focused. We have the support from the group on whatever investment is needed to make sure that we are on the right track.