Cheap cell phone service? Not in Myanmar

DUBLIN, Ireland, June 5 (UPI) -- If you want to use a cell phone, how far will $300 go?

In China, you can make domestic calls for up to 7,600 minutes with two of the largest telecommunications companies. In the United States, that money would buy a new iPhone 4S.

But in Myanmar, the Asian country also known as Burma, $300 buys just a SIM card.

And that's at a discount. Myanmar's Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraph reduced the price of the cards in March. Now, they're available for around $240-$300, depending on the version selected.

In Myanmar, those prices are out of reach for most people.

“This is still beyond many ordinary citizens’ means," said Patrick, a Myanmar activist with the Human Rights Education Institute of Myanmar. "The lowest paid workers currently earn 2,000 kyats a day, which is just $2 or so."

Patrick asked that his Catholic name be used for this story to protect his identity. He spoke at an event in Dublin, Ireland, where he works at a human rights organization.

And even at that high price, those cards don't provide quality cell service, Patrick said.

“Signal is neither stable nor nationwide," he said. "If you work for some (non-governmental organization) and travel from place to place, you probably need to buy two SIM cards."

The prices in Myanmar aren't in keeping with prices in the rest of the region. SIM cards in other Southeast Asian countries start at about $1.50 (in Thailand), and top out at about $4 (in Laos), Patrick said.

One private company, Shwe Pyi Ta Khun, announced a plan to sell 1 million SIM cards for as low as $6 each. The announcement sparked a protest in Yangon against the government's communications policies and in favor of the private company, but 11 people were detained for questioning, reported The Irrawaddy, a news magazine published in Thailand.

Ministry officials announced the private company's plan didn't fit with the government's regulations.

"Much more time would be needed to upgrade the mobile phone network system," the officials said, also reported The Irrawaddy.

But Patrick and other people in Myanmar say their government wants to restrict communication. Cheaper SIM cards exist, he said, for about $20 but they're only available to foreigners.

"They just don't want us to easily access communication domestically or internationally without any limitation," he said.

The situation isn't what Myanmar's communications ministry promised. A communications official said in March that new mobile networks would be installed between March and mid-May, after which people with phones would experience better service.

President of Myanmar Thein Sein addressed the public in his inauguration anniversary speech, "as regards the matter of mobile phones, we will seek the best way and means to fulfill the wishes of the people," reported Mizzima News, a Myanmar multimedia news organization run by journalists in exile.

People who live in certain regions have alternatives, Patrick said. Cell service from China spills across the border into Myanmar in Kachin state.

"We Kachin people prefer to buy Chinese SIM cards from Chinese stores for only $8," he said. "You can top up the SIM card by paying $3 in any Chinese store. It is much cheaper, and the signal is more stable."

Kachin state is disputed territory and has an armed resistance group that keeps intervention from Myanmar's officials at bay.

"We have our own language, culture and identify," Patrick said. "We can use Chinese SIM cards more freely."

But for most people in Myanmar, SIM cards issued by the government communications ministry represent the only choice. In addition to high prices, there is a long waiting list for official permission to purchase a SIM card. As a result, there is a black market for the cards, where they sell for $600 or more.