YANGON - Qatari telecoms firm Ooredoo began selling low-cost SIM cards in Myanmar on Saturday, opening up access to mobile services in one of the world's last virtually untapped phone markets.
Less than 10 per cent of the population are thought to have access to a telephone in Myanmar where the exorbitant cost of a SIM under former junta rule made mobile phones a luxury.
But last year the reformist government led by President Thein Sein awarded telecom licences to Ooredoo as well as Norway's Telenor, part of a wider move to open up markets previously monopolised by state firms.
"This is history that we made here today," said Ooredoo Myanmar CEO Ross Cormack at a press conference in Yangon, adding the firm was bringing the very latest technologies to the long-isolated nation.
The SIM card was officially launched for sale Saturday in the major cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw at a price of 1,500 kyat ($1.5), a fraction of the cost of ordinary cards in Myanmar which retail at about $200. Under junta rule a SIM could go for more than $1,500.
Ooredoo billboards advertising traditionally-garbed women holding a parasol in one hand and a mobile in the other have plastered downtown Yangon streets for weeks, helping to build a buzz around the launch.
Several million SIM cards will be on sale from 6,500 dealers, according to Cormack, ahead of a wider rollout to cover 68 towns and cities, around and including the three hubs launched Saturday, by mid-August.
But some shops were reported to have started selling advance stock as early as last week with cases of vendors demanding above the retail price and even selling out.
"I bought two SIM cards yesterday for 5,000 kyat each. The price is still very cheap if you compare it with what was previously available," Khaing Moe, a university student, told AFP.
Rival Telenor, which also plans to sell its SIM cards for 1,500 kyat, said it would launch in Myanmar in September.
"Healthy mobile competition in the mobile industry will benefit consumers in Myanmar and we are confident that Telenor will become the most affordable offering in the market," firm spokeswoman Hanne Knudsen told AFP.
Myanmar has generated huge international investor interest since wide-ranging reforms introduced under the current quasi-civilian government saw most Western sanctions lifted.
Actual investment has been tempered by nervousness over the regulatory framework.
But the telecoms tender process eventually won by Telenor and Ooredoo last June saw some 90 firms compete for the 15-year licences, the first to be awarded by Myanmar.
The two foreign firms will soon compete against each other and existing state-owned giant Myanmar Post and Telecommunication for a potentially lucrative pool of customers among the country's estimated 60 million people.
The national company also started selling low-cost SIMs last year, but through a lottery system which is relatively small in scale, leaving many people to still rely on manned roadside stalls where they can use conventional telephones to keep in touch.
Alongside the opportunities of entering one of the world's few remaining frontier mobile markets are the many challenges of reaching scattered rural communities in Myanmar.
Patchy power, poor road connections and regulatory issues such as land rights are among the problems companies face in building a mobile network.
The growing Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar has also posed a threat. In June radical monks urged a boycott of Ooredoo because it hails from Muslim-majority Qatar.