Wow! Myanmar is Going Straight to Smartphones

A year ago, I predicted that Myanmar would be a smartphone only country. I saw the confluence of cheap smartphones, savvy people, and innovative mobile network operators, and believed we were about to see Myanmar leap from a technological backwater to a digital economy leader.
Recently I wondered: how accurate was my prediction? Is Myanmar on the fast track with smartphones as I predicted, or is mobile adoption slower and more feature phone-centric?
50% Mobile Subscriber Growth in 1 Year
There are three mobile network operators in Myanmar: Ooredoo, Telenor, and MPT. Ooredoo and Telenor launched last year as competition to the state-controlled MPT, which had 10 million subscribers last year. Fast forward 1 year to August 2015 and Telenor boasts 10 million subscribers, not yet matching MPT’s 14 million subscribers, and both dwarfing Ooredoo’s 5 million subscribers.
Myanmar now has 29 million active mobile subscriptions in a country with an official population of 53 million. That’s almost 300% subscriber growth in just 1 year, and mobile phone usage approaching 50% of the population.
80% Smartphone Usage
But what kind of phones are people using? Are they smartphones, as I predicted, or feature phones as others countered? Both Telenor and Ooredoo report a massive 80% smartphone usage rate. This isn’t smartphones sales, which just passed 47% in Africa, but actual devices connecting to the MNO networks.
By comparison, the USA has a 75% smartphone usage rate, and only Singapore and South Korea have 80% or greater smartphone usage.  So tiny, once backwater Myanmar is now one of the highest smartphone usage countries in the world.
As David Madden says, “Myanmar is going straight to smartphones.”
Data for Web, Facebook, and Video
And yes, people are using them to make phone calls, Telenor reports that its voice traffic grew 90% in the first half of 2015, but data usage grew a stunning 200%. 55% of Telenor subscribers are data users on a monthly basis and web browsing consumes 43% of all data costs, followed by Facebook at 24%, and 14% for streaming video. Games at 8% and other uses for 11% round out data consumption on their network.
And all this Internet usage will just keep going up. Telenor believes that there will be more than 38 million Internet users in Myanmar by 2016, or 60% of the population online, when less that 2% was online in 2012. This has changed Telenor’s roll out strategy.
When it launched, Telenor focused on rolling out 2G networks, believing that Myanmar didn’t have a smartphone-first mindset. Now it’s only building 3G towers and focusing on increasing its network capacity to handle the data deluge.
Myanmar’s Future is Smartphones
Last August, I convened a workshop in Yangon that concluded that the future of Myanmar is mobile. We believed that by 2018, almost every household will have a smartphone, almost every person will have access to a mobile device, and most people will be online.
If anything, that prediction looks a little conservative just one year later. Myanmar is coming online faster than anyone predicted and there is a whole start-up ecosystem emerging just as fast. In a telling comment that should excite every entrepreneur, Telenor CEO Jon Frederik Baksaas said “The Myanmar economy has had more money in circulation than we had originally expected.”
And smart money is on smartphones in Myanmar.