Opportunity outweighs risks in Myanmar: Ooredoo chief

21 Nov 2013

ITEM: Ooredoo remains upbeat about its plans to offer mobile services in Myanmar, despite reported delays in the telecoms licensing process.

Qatar-based Ooredoo, along with Norway’s Telenor, won tenders in June for two 15-year telecoms licenses. However, the actual licenses have not yet been formally awarded – partly because of delays related to the passing of the country’s new telecoms law, and partly because negotiations are still ongoing over telecoms rules covering things like competition, numbering and voice/SMS interconnectivity between competing networks, according to The Irrawaddy.

While the licenses were supposed to be originally awarded in September, the hope now is that they’ll be awarded by the end of the year.

The delays might highlight the risks and uncertainties of entering into a newly opened telecoms market – particularly one with a turbulent political history – but Ooredoo group CEO Dr Nasser Marafih says the opportunity greatly outweighs the risk, and in any case, Ooredoo is no stranger to operating in risk-heavy markets – such as Iraq (where it operates Asiacell) and Palestine (Wataniya Palestine).

“We have maybe more difficulties [in Palestine] than almost any other place, because of the situation there, of course,” Dr Marafih told your blogger on the sidelines of ITU Telecom World 2013 in Bangkok Wednesday. “And we’ve managed that very well and made it successful.”

As for Myanmar, he adds, “You always have to look at the opportunity and the risk. We have looked at the risk [in Myanmar] and we’ve engaged with the government. We have that experience in risk management, and we think the risk is manageable and not as challenging as other markets where we operate.”

And the opportunity in Myanmar, Dr Marafih adds further, is huge. “It’s the last pent-up market in terms of penetration, which is less than 10%. You really can’t find any country in a similar situation except maybe North Korea. So there’s huge opportunity for growth in terms of not only basic services but more importantly data services.”

In fact, he says, “After Indonesia [where Ooredoo operates Indosat], it’s going to be our second biggest operation in Asia.”

He does acknowledge the challenges involved in building a national mobile network in a country where most people live in rural areas, don’t have access to regular power, and don't have a lot of money to spend.

“That’s a challenge because the price of devices still needs to come down if you’re going to achieve the level of impact you want,” he says, adding that Ooredoo is still assessing the market to work out things like purchasing power to determine how far service and device prices have to come down in order to spur massive take-up.

A related challenge is determining what kinds of services and apps people will want, and will pay for. Ross Cormack, CEO of Ooredoo Myanmar, says there are numerous possibilities for mobile services covering education, agriculture, health services, and money-based services like mobile money transfer, mobile banking, and mobile finance.

“There is a history where people haven’t fully trusted the banks, and we can provide an opportunity where the banks and the customers can be brought together,” he says.

Meanwhile, Dr Marafih admits that Ooredoo does have a “Plan B” in case things don’t go as planned, but adds quickly that he’s very confident that the licensing will move ahead. “The government is very keen, and they’re working hard to attract international investment in this.”

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