“The Internet is not good here. Generally speaking for the internet condition of Rakhine State , I think only Sittwe City has 4G internet. Internet conditions in other areas are terrible. If you use Facebook, the connection is unstable. So, you have to change to other sim card providers.”
said Ko Thant Htoo Aung from Myay Pone Town, Rakhine , Myanmar in a post-training interview conducted by Digtech ASEAN , an emerging ASEAN organization focused to promote digital literacy and encourage digital advocacy.
“Back then, we had to climb up over a 100 ft hill to use the internet and gather Covid information related to the death tolls around Myanmar and Rakhine State. Then, in order to share that information with the local community, we printed vinyls and posted them at the local market’s entrance. If the internet connection was available, we wouldn't have to do that. This is the implication of internet shutdown” he continued.
One would not argue that the Internet has become an essential part of modern lifestyles , rather than an amenity of technology innovation. More or less, the internet has seeped into every dimension of different disciplines around the world and brought new transformations.The Internet was first introduced to the Myanmar public around 2000, with the nation opening up to the market economy. However, the internet communication business in Myanmar was under oligarchy of government related services until the arrival of global service providers in 2014. Before the internet was widely available as mobile data services, internet cafes were the only affordable internet option for most people.Little by little, the internet came in forms of mobile data services and wifi services ( wireless broadbands or fiber internet) , yet the accessibility and universal coverage are far from moderately achieved.
A young girl running a public telephone at Yangon inJanuary 2013. internet myanmar
©Ed Kashi/VII for the Open Society Foundations
Prospective Numbers, Not-so-prospective reality
As of world bank’s statistics, Internet penetration in Myanmar was 23.621% of total population in 2017, an astronomical growth compared to 0.25% in 2010. In January 2021 right before the military Coup, Myanmar had mobile penetration of 127.2% and internet penetration of 43.3% of total population. While it is true that all hell broke loose due to military coup , the access to quality internet has been very questionable since the get-go. The statistics for internet coverage and penetration represents only the sheer numbers as people from lower hierarchy of the society struggle towards quality internet usage.
In this access to quality internet issue, we will explore four pillars of quality internet access in Myanmar , (1) Internet Affordability , (2) Connection Speed , (3) Usage Limitation and (4) Right to enjoy internet freedom
The UN Broadband commission has a “ 1 for 2 “ target developed by Alliances for Affordable Internet Organization. The target means that affordable internet is where 1 GB of mobile internet is priced at 2% or less of average monthly income for a particular country. By taking the average monthly income for Myanmar as 200,000 MMK (around 111 USD) and 1 GB of mobile internet price as 1000 MMK (0.56 USD) , the internet affordability value is around 0.5% of average income. On paper, there is nothing wrong with Myanmar’s internet affordability, yet the truth is that there is a large group of population living under Myanmar’s minimum wage (14,4000 MMK per month). It is obvious that in order to enjoy quality internet, 1 GB is too limited to stream video contents, pursue learnings and other capabilities. However, with the rising inflation and limited income opportunities, people like “Maung” , a youth from the urban outskirt of Yangon, have to maximize their mental resistance against the urge to use the internet more properly.
“I do not have any income so I have to be really selective about how I spend my mobile data, I don't really use facebook. I mostly play online competitive games on a daily basis. I feel like the mobile data price is too much. I look for unlimited wifi providers , but no luck, nothing is available in my area.”
While unlimited wifi service providers are available in the major cities of most regions in Myanmar, individuals from urban outskirts, far-flung rural areas and minor cities have no choice but to rely on mobile internet.
According to Speedtest.net, Myanmar has 22.67 Mbps download speed for mobile internet and 22.69 Mbps download speed for fixed broadband in July 2021. The overall internet speed of Myanmar is relatively doing well in the Southeast Asia Region, however not everyone from Myanmar can enjoy this. Like the story of a youth featured in the introduction , most areas of ethnic regions lack stability and adequate speed. The stories about people taking rather drastic measures such as climbing up hills just to be able to use a stable internet is not uncommon in rural regions of Myanmar. Even for urban internet users, occasional internet breakdowns of ISPs and low internet stability issues still linger.
Generally, three most common types of internet services in Myanmar are (1) mobile internet, (2) FTTH (Fiber-to-the-home) services and (3) wireless broadband services. Only FTTH services are available as an unlimited version as there are internet usage limitations for mobile internet and wireless broadband services. With the ongoing waves of Covid-19 and security risks, the internet seems like a good place to spend time.
People who have access to FTTH services will not notice this privilege of internet access. While they can wander the vast realm of the internet without any constraints , mobile internet and wireless broadband users have to do mathematics before they jump into any data-demanding activities. Compared with the average cost of FTTH service per month which is around 25000 MMK (~ 13.5 USD) with unlimited data , 30GB mobile data for 1G per day costs around 30000 MMK ( ~16 USD) per month.Although Wireless broadband services are astoundingly different from one ISP to another, the average cost per month is around 30000 MMK (~16 USD) with around 180 GB available. For mobile data and wireless broadband users without additional financial capacity, the opportunities such as continuous online learning, remote-working , video content consumption are as limited as their internet GBs.
Right to enjoy internet freedom
For a third world country with a long history of dictatorship, freedom is out of connection in Myanmar. Before September 2011, there was massive internet censorship and regulations which restricted total internet freedom. With the democratization after 2011, one might assume that the general public will have a chance to enjoy basic citizen’s rights for internet freedom. However, laws are still in place to restrict online freedom.
On June 21, 2019, Myanmar’s then government started the arguably world’s longest internet shutdown in eight townships of Rakhine and Chin States. This internet shutdown had totally blocked any development potential whatsoever of these regions, leaving thousands of people under stark darkness. Following the military coup, there were frequent internet shutdowns and disruptions during February 2021. Facebook and some particular social media networks were banned. Periodic internet shutdowns were imposed between 1:00 am - 9:00 am local time. Starting from March 15th , mobile internet was blocked. Soon enough, wireless broadband services were blocked starting from April 1st. It was in May when mobile and wireless internet services had been slowly lifted one after another from the shutdown. Now, VPN and internet are inseparable for Myanmar people as they continue to live under white-list internet restriction.
Let alone its internet, Myanmar as a whole is unstable
Needless to say, the Internet has become one of the key drivers for both human development and economic growth.During the last decade, Myanmar used to be one of the most exciting frontiers for internet-related services and technology innovation. What used to be a fertile land of technology startups and digital businesses is now utterly going backwards , like a broken car coming down backwards from a high slope. Despite the prospective statistics, the on-ground internet situation of Myanmar is getting worse. With the rising inflation, collapsing currency value and lower income opportunities, access to quality internet has become more and more difficult. There is also a good chance of further internet shutdowns in the coming time ahead. Moreover, the role of the internet and social media in the resistance against dictatorship is too big to be overlooked. Objectively speaking, although uncertainty reigns supreme for what is coming ahead in Myanmar, I believe universal internet coverage and quality internet access should be prioritized in the development policy-making after the country’s sovereignty is returned to its rightful owners, the people.