What happens when a reformist government in a previously oppressed country topples a three decade monopoly on telecommunications? In Myanmar it leads to one million SIM cards sold in a month as users race to get connected.
In August,into the virtually untapped market -- a population of 60 million people with just 10 percent mobile penetration.
In that month Ooredoo sold one million SIM cards, more than six times the monthly SIM card sales of the incumbent, MPT. Another newcomer, Norway's Telenor, is expecting similarly spectacular sales and has brought 10 million SIM cards to the party. MPT stopped limiting SIM card sales and now also expects to sell one million SIM cards in October as well.
Compared to more mature markets the numbers are vast -- the USA adds just 139,000 new connections per quarter by comparison. But it may also be something of a SIM card buffet, as users buy several SIMs each and then choose to use the card which offers the best rates.
"I have two MPT cards, one Ooredoo card and when Telenor comes to Yangon in October, I'm getting one of those too," said Ma Thuzar, a salesperson in Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar. "I hope Telenor's cheap internet plan, half the price of Ooredoo, will let me use Viber video more often without finishing my salary."
Today's mature mobile markets in Asia, like Singapore, see decreasing competition among telcos and increasing mobile plan prices. There are similar stories from Australia, the UK, and Canada, These markets are heavily regulated, and changes are very incremental and with few new subscribers. While most telcos cite higher costs as a justification to increase prices, it's important to put these justifications into perspective by observing what telcos do when they really compete.
Despite the huge -- $15 billion -- investment cost of building a mobile network from scratch, Ooredoo's mobile voice and data prices are aggressive by any standard. The newcomer halved voice call charges, and drove down mobile internet data prices to make Myanmar's voice and data charges one of the most competitive pay-as-you-go rates in the world: $0.01 per MB compared to neighbouring Singapore's lead carrier Singtel's $0.021 for every 10 kB.
It helps that the new players in Myanmar are low-cost specialists, with both companies having operations in the world's least developed telecom markets in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. But the fierce and unbridled competition permitted in these emerging markets shows how low prices can go when there's customers to be won.
In the meantime, customers in countries like Myanmar can only win as competition, and genuinely modern communication services, arrive to serve their needs.