Saturday, December 29, 2012

Impressions of the Internet in Yangon, Myranmar

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. Here are some quick impressions of the state of the Internet there.

I stopped at two Internet cafes to check email and upload my student's final grades. The computers were old tower PCs with small LCD displays, and they were running Windows 7. The cost was only 50 cents (US) per hour, but the connections were slow -- around 100 kbps as measured by At that speed, I was able to read my email, but our campus grade reporting system was unusable.

As in many developing nations, pirated software is sold openly in Myanmar. The labels on the binders shown below indicate the categories of software for sale in a store I visited. (You can see the "production department" against the wall behind the table).

Disks were also displayed on racks in the store. "Installers" -- disks with programs -- cost $US 1.25 and content disks cost just over 50 cents. The selection was quite random and many of the programs were old versions. Windows 7 was available, but not Windows 8.

One of the newest looking shops I saw had computers customers used to make online purchases. This service makes sense in a nation where few people have Internet access and payment and delivery systems are not available.

Finally, I saw a shop selling used consumer electronics and computers. They also had a smattering of electronic parts -- it reminded me a little of the computer and component swap meets back in the early computer hobby days when we were wire-wrapping our own boards and of the auto junk yards where I hung out as a kid.

Myanmar has a population of 48.3 million people and a GDP per capita of $US 1,300, making it the second poorest nation in Asia after Nepal (GDP per capita of $US 1,200). Given this level of poverty, it is not surprising that the Internet has not taken off. The following statistics are comparable to those in a developing nation 15 years ago:

Internet related statistics, Myanmar 2011
Percentage of individuals using the Internet 1.0
Fixed (wired) broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 0.1
Active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 0
Fixed telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 1.1
Mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 2.6
International Internet bandwidth Kbit/s per Internet user 8.0
Percentage of households with computer 1.8
Percentage of households with Internet access 1.4
Secure Internet servers 4
Internet (.mm) hosts, 2012 1,055
ICT development index rank 131
Sources: CIA, ITU and the World Bank database

As we see, a very small percent of the population uses the Internet and there is no mobile access. Organization use, as measured by .mm domain names and secure Internet servers, is practically non-existent. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranks Myanmar 131st out of 155 nations using its comprehensive ICT Development Index. (The only Asian nation below Myanmar is Nepal, which is ranked 137th). These statistics explain why my connectivity at Internet cafes in the largest city in the nation was so slow.

That is the bad news. The good news is that Myanmar is rich in natural resources and seems to be emerging from a repressive, capricious and corrupt military dictatorship that dates back to 1962. In 2011, they released Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and held elections for a minority portion of the Parliament seats. Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 of 45 seats available in the election, and general elections will hopefully be held by 2014. In recognition of these changes, both Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama have visited Myanmar.

Let's hope this apparent progress is for real and the Internet and the nation develop rapidly.