RANGOON — Until 10.30 am on Wednesday morning, Htet Htet Khaing was one of the tens of millions of Burmese who do not have a mobile phone subscription. That changed when her name was one of 70 called out at the Aung monastery on Mahabandoola Garden Street in Rangoon, in one of hundreds of public lotteries taking place for 350,000 widely-coveted new low-cost SIM cards.
“I’m so happy to win, a bit surprised too, as many people want [a SIM card],” said the 22-year-old student, speaking while local officials lifted green dockets out of silver bowls, holding them up for the crowd to see and hollering out the final few names and numbers in the draw.
The price of the new SIM cards—1500 kyat (US $1.70)—has prompted widespread interest in recent weeks in a country where telecoms costs have typically been wallet-emptying and where only an estimated 5-10 percent of people have a mobile phone subscription.
Phone Kyaw Myint, an appropriately-named official who helped organize the local lottery, told The Irrawaddy that there were 326 applicants for the 70 SIM cards allocated to the area — Ward 2 in Kyauktada Township in Burma’s biggest city.
“The winners will come to our office today to collect their SIM cards,” he said. “I think nearly everyone applied in this street, so not everyone can get [a SIM card], but maybe there will be more SIMs soon.”
Soe Aung, second chief engineer at Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), told The Irrawaddy that there will be another SIM card offering next month. “I think it will be 350,000 again, for sure,” he said.
Thirty-thousand of the new SIM cards have been allocated to civil servants, while 119,000 of the batch are being sold in Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city. The new SIM cards are only available to Burmese citizens, despite the growing numbers of foreign businesspeople in Burma, numbers expected to increase after the European Union dropped sanctions on April 22.
Likely wary of allowing millions of Burmese access to cheap communications, the Burmese government kept tight restrictions on the sale of SIM cards, which were priced as high as $3000 in the past, falling in recent years to around $250.
Such prices are way beyond the reach of most Burmese, millions of whom live on the equivalent of a few dollars per day. These new SIM cards are the first batch to be sold in Burma at what is around the market price in neighboring countries, where mobile phone usage is widespread and affordable.
Burma’s population is estimated at about 60 million people, but only around 1 in 10 Burmese are mobile phone users, according to government figures, one of the lowest rates in the world. In Thailand, there are more subscriptions than people resident in the country. In poorer neighbors, such as Laos and Cambodia, subscriptions are at 87 per cent and 70 per cent respectively, and SIM cards usually cost around $5, or are sometimes free.
Even for those who can purchase the cheap new SIMs, cost remains a hurdle in low-income Burma.
Htet Htet Khaing doesn’t own a phone, and cannot afford to buy one just yet. “Hopefully I will get [a SIM card] in a couple of weeks. I need to keep some money first,” she said.
For others who stumped-up for expensive connections in the past, the new SIMs are nonetheless a draw.
“I already have a SIM card,” says Ko Latt, a computer technician, scanning for his name on a list of those to be drawn. “I paid 500,000 kyat ($565) for it, but others in my family do not have a SIM, so hopefully we can get another.”
That hefty price-tag did not come with a service to match, he says, adding that he hopes that the growing market for SIM cards will in turn see much-needed network improvements.
“Always out of service, network problem,” he complains. “In Myanmar, there are only 1500 transmission towers, in other countries like Thailand, they have about 20,000,” he added.
Burma is opening its mobile phone sector to foreign investors, with twelve bids from foreign operators and consortia under consideration. An announcement on the two winning bids is expected later in the year, and Burma’s government says it hopes to see 80 percent of Burmese using mobile phones by 2015.
The new SIM card issue comes three months after the Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT) minister resigned, ostensibly over his refusal to sanction the sale of SIM cards at what is market price in other countries in the region, amid allegations of graft at the ministry.
There have been corruption complaints too during this new SIM allocation process, with officials in North Dagon township in Rangoon accused of commandeering numerous SIM cards for friends and family.
People waiting at Mahabandoola Garden Street said they were happy with how officials carried out the draw, even though there was disappointment for the majority of those waiting.
“Yangon is hot,” exhaled local resident Nilar Win, fanning herself while standing under a baking mid-morning sun, as temperatures edged toward 40 degrees Celsius.
Usually the monastery’s tannoy carries Buddhist chants and sermons. On Wednesday morning, however, the street echoed to the refrain of names and numbers chosen in the SIM card draw.
Nilar Win stood listening. Like millions of Burmese, she has never owned a mobile phone. “I stand here waiting, because I want to get one,” she said. ‘If not this time, I hope some other time soon.”