June 14, 2013, 3:27 AM — In Yangon, Myanmar, giant Samsung billboards hang overhead as dozens of handset shops line the crowded city streets and advertise the latest smartphones. Just a few years ago, you wouldn't have seen such a sight, said Soe Nyi Nyi, a local tech entrepreneur.
"There's been a lot of changes," he said. "There's a lot of mobile phone shops now."
Only a year ago, buying a SIM card in Myanmar could cost around US$250. Go back further, and the price was as high as $2000 or more, with control of the telecommunications network strictly regulated by the nation's then military government. The high prices put handsets out of the reach of many, and even now only about 5 percent of the population use mobile phones, according to industry experts.
But all that is starting to change as Myanmar transitions to democracy. For the first time, mobile phones are becoming affordable under reforms brought on by the new government. Handsets could soon end up flooding the market, bringing the Internet to millions, and potentially raising the quality of life in one of Asia's poorest countries.
Ask people in Yangon, a city of 6 million, and many will say with optimism that the country is on the right track since Myanmar's nominal civilian government took power in 2011. Online censorship has largely ended, political prisoners have been freed, and foreign governments, including the U.S., have lifted or eased sanctions against the nation.
"Yes, it's better, we have free speech," said Chan Mya, a taxi cab driver. "In the former times it was impossible. There are many newspapers now."
But in terms of technology, Myanmar is one of the least connected places in the world. The country's Internet penetration is at around 1 percent, and few know how to use PCs. Simple things such as electricity can be hard to come by, and people generally live off low incomes of between $80 and $150 a month.
It hasn't helped that Myanmar, also known as Burma, once took a hostile stance against the Internet, and tried to stamp out online dissent. Some like local blogger Nay Phone Latt have been jailed for spreading news on anti-government protests. In 2008, he was sentenced to prison, only to be released four years later as part of a mass presidential pardon.
Since then, Nay Phone Latt has started an NGO, called the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, that helps train people in different towns to use the Internet. Most of the people instructed are in their 20s, and want to look for jobs, he said. "They want to read the news, and share the local news," he added. "The young people look for educational opportunities, scholarships."