Is Myanmar planning for a single network?

05 Jul 2013

Just days after Myanmar's government awarded licenses to Ooredoo and Telenor to build out the country's under-developed mobile infrastructure, the government reportedly is considering allowing for only one mobile network to be rolled out nationwide.

Should such a mandate actually be confirmed, it certainly would make offering mobile services in the country much less attractive to the current winners as neither would be able to use the network as a differentiator, which is critical in a developing mobile market like Myanmar.

Presumably, the two winners would jointly roll out the network across the country.

A source close to the negotiations suggested to that a single network build-out would leave the door open for other foreign telcos to enter the market as MVNOs, should the government extend licenses to more than two mobile operators in the future. This would increase competition at the retail level and avoid duplication in infrastructure.

A single network could have a number of benefits, most importantly increased economies of scale and faster roll-out. Exactly the same benefits as the NBN projects popping up around the region. As Telecom Asia columnist Tony Poulos asked in a column last month, why not use the NBN model for mobile networks? He wrote: "Just think of the benefit of having one super-network across Europe or Asia".

Analysys Mason consultant Amrish Kacker says Myanmar is a good market to try out a single network, which might make commercial sense because of the government's aggressive deployment requirements to roll out quickly.

He says a move to a consolidated network will only happen if forced by the regulator.

It's worth noting that the government has specified network sharing from the start. A telecom consultant familiar with the tender, who requested anonymity, said the reason for pushing network sharing is to ensure that the operators launch within nine months.

"For political reasons they want service by next year because of Myanmar's chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, which means lots of big meetings, plus showing tangible economic development for the 2015 election."

He says he doesn't think MVNO is such a major consideration at this stage even though there were some talks about open access to networks. "Additionally don't forget that MPT [Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications], YTP [Yatanarpon Teleport] will be the other two operators, so we'll have multiple networks regardless."

What is more likely to happen, the source said, is a mix of operators' own networks, some passive network sharing between them (since too hard to agree on a full shared network in such a short time) and also independent towers companies providing passive network infrastructure to the operators. All this will help with speedy rollout rather than be bogged down with negotiations for a common single network.

Analysys Mason's Kacker points to two major hurdles in sharing active network equipment. "In a brown-field environment the networks will be at different stages of investment since they weren't deployed at the same time. So the players have to wait for the right time to start sharing."

And from a technical aspect, he said that because many telcos have deployed a single RAN (carrying 2G, 3G and 4G traffic), which is already optimized in terms of opex, that a move to network sharing won't yielding the level of benefits that it would have in the past or in a greenfield operation.

"A greenfield market like Myanmar changes those dynamics."

Kacker noted that the key to successful network sharing is for all parties involved not to be worried about one player being able to dominate the relationship. So the technical arrangement needs to ensure that safeguards are in place.

He says Telenor has a reasonable track record in active RAN sharing -- but not in its home market.

Of course there is a massive difference between mere sharing and having one consolidated network. No doubt the latter would have a negative impact on share prices of mobile gear makers, most of which have endured a turbulent run since 2006.

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