Myanmar: The Final (Mobile) Frontier

People gather in the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Close

People gather in the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People gather in the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

In an era when many countries have more mobile phones than people and the price of wireless service is falling fast, Myanmar is a place operators want to be.

Opened up last year after decades of military rule, the Southeast Asian nation began a program to encourage foreign investment and new infrastructure. Among those initiatives, the government is offering two licenses to provide mobile-phone service to the country's 64 million people.

Only about 9 percent of the population has a mobile phone, and just 1 percent has a fixed line. That compares with 70 percent mobile penetration in Cambodia, 87 percent in Laos and more than 100 percent in Thailand, Myanmar's Communication Ministry said in January.

"It is the biggest telecom desert," said France Telecom's strategy chief, Elie Girard. "There is less telephone use in Myanmar than in North Korea and Cuba. We've never seen anything like this."

The call for operators brought in scores of applicants including Vodafone and China Mobile, the world's two biggest mobile carriers. Working together, the companies made it to the final cut, but dropped out of the running last week.

That leaves 11 groups still pursuing the contract. Among them is the team of billionaire George Soros and Digicel, which specializes in building mobile networks in places like Haiti and Papua New Guinea. They have pledged to spend $9 billion on a network that will blanket the country with high-speed fourth-generation technology. Japan's KDDI, South Africa's MTN Group, Qatar Telecom and Norway's Telenor are also in the running. Myanmar is expected to make a final decision on June 27.

Myanmar, can you hear me now?

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