The coronavirus pandemic presented both opportunities and challenges to Myanmar but the resilience built over time in the ICT sector is enough to see the economy hurdle through these, believes U SHANE THU AUNG.
OXFORD BUSINESS GROUP: What impact did COVID-19 have on Myanmar’s efforts to expand ICT access to a greater proportion of the population?
SHANE THU AUNG: Strategies to expand ICT services continued in many ways despite the pandemic, partly thanks to the fact that telecoms services were classified as essential. Nonetheless, the sector did face some challenges. These included a lack of uniformity in terms of movement restrictions between zones, which are managed by different administrative authorities, resulting in limited site access in some cases and a slowdown in business operations in others. On top of this, the ICT industry experienced the domino effect of a downturn in some industries. Overall, however, the sector was relatively well positioned to continue operations during the pandemic.
OBG: In which ways has the pandemic further encouraged digitalisation, and where might this provide additional opportunities for ICT players?
STA: The pandemic accelerated collaboration between the public sector and private ICT players as the authorities sought to migrate procedures online and digitalise services. However, the rapid rise in demand for digitalisation led to substantial delays in executing some of these processes – which is why the support of the private ICT sector is now more important than ever.
COVID-19 also considerably improved the sentiment of both consumers and merchants towards online shopping and digital payments. Both groups are now more inclined to conduct online transactions via e-commerce, with payments either completed digitally or via cash on delivery. Social media platforms adapted quickly to the new trend, enabling a larger number of transactions on their portal.
However, it is worth noting that these transitions are unstructured and have been launched at a low cost; long-term solutions for online stores will require a specialised workforce that can generate a lasting technological impact.
OBG: Why does the implementation of fibre-to-the-home technology remain difficult in Myanmar?
STA: Solid digital infrastructure has been put in place since the liberalisation of the technology sector in 2013. However, while mobile coverage is quite high in Myanmar compared to some other countries in the region, internet subscriptions only total around 22m. The challenge stems from a lack of awareness and low digital literacy among family businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Regional governments also charge high fees to private entities that wish to install fibre-optic technology, which leads to relatively expensive final broadband prices for consumers. This needs to be improved to allow SMEs and family firms to become more successful.
As many small businesses already have mobile connectivity, once they are connected via fibre optics, they can start to launch websites, e-commerce applications, and online registration and payment solutions, which will help players keep pace with emerging digital trends. Citizens need to become familiar with technology beyond their smartphones. To this end, the European-American Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Education (MoE) have created initiatives to help people of all ages become more digitally literate.
OBG: To what extent does Myanmar’s current legal framework ensure data protection?
STA: Data residency, privacy and classification are being prioritised by the government and advocated to the public. This is a pivotal move forwards for the Myanmar digital economy and needs to be done correctly. In order to do so, there has to be a data classification model – for example, public data, confidential data and top-secret data. Data storage and access could also use public-, private- and hybrid-cloud models in order to best serve the public.
OBG: How did the pandemic impact the adoption of cloud services, and which types of companies are most receptive to these technologies?
STA: Cloud technology arrived locally in mid-2019. Following the onset of the pandemic, businesses in almost all sectors have begun to shift to the cloud. Cloud services are now essential for many technologies; the cloud is no longer optional. The level of cloud adoption varies but is most commonly dictated by the size of the company. Large companies tend to buy new IT services and run them online, whereas many medium-sized companies have taken steps to modernise their infrastructure to enable remote employees to access data that is stored on site. Small companies, for their part, generally integrate pay-as-you-go solutions.
* Thu Aung is Chairman at Global Technology Company