Any doubt about potential interest in Myanmar's untapped mobile services market was put to bed last week when the South East Asian country's government announced that 91 companies had submitted expressions of interest in just two new national mobile licenses.
The government has not released any names of bidders, but says the applications "include some of the largest global telecommunications companies and foreign investment firms as well as Myanmar companies."
It has an aggressive timetable, with plans to issue the new licenses by the middle of this year.
The impoverished country, with an annual GDP per capita of just US$824, is rapidly opening its economy to the world after half a century of isolation. (See Myanmar: The Next Big Deal?)
It has a population of 60 million and mobile penetration of 9 percent, with a SIM card costing the equivalent of between $150 and $200. The market is predicted to yield $5 billion in revenue by 2016.
In bid documents released in January, the government said it would choose the new licensees by "comparative evaluation." But insiders say the final decision will almost certainly be taken in the president's office and that politics will likely count just as much as telecom expertise.
World Bank official Kevin Lu says he ranked Japanese and Korean players as the favorites, followed closely by bidders from Singapore.
It doesn't hurt the Japanese that their government provided a bridging loan to help Myanmar pay off nearly $1 billion in arrears to the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank.
However, industry executives caution on the political and regulatory risk.
Jeanette K Chan, a senior counsel in Asia/Pacific for telecom and media for law firm Paul Weiss, said the regulatory risk was "obvious ... I just don't think the government knows how to regulate. This is a whole new area for them," she told a telecom financing conference in Hong Kong recently.
Gautam Saxema, head of Asia Telecom and Media at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, observed there are very few underserved markets that remain to be opened up. "It's Cuba, Myanmar or North Korea -- where would you rather go?"
But he noted that the last Asian market to liberalize -- Vietnam, nine years ago -- had provided only limited opportunities for foreign players.
Kevin Lu, the Asian head of the World Bank Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), who has been working closely with the Myanmar government, acknowledged officials were learning on the job. He said telecom was the government's biggest priority after energy, and the pace was "a lot faster than we had expected."
But he conceded a "lack of visibility as to what the regulatory framework will look like."
Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel), Singapore Technologies Telemedia Pte. Ltd. (ST Telemedia, the owner of Singapore's StarHub), Malaysia's Axiata Group Berhad and Norwegian incumbent Telenor ASA are confirmed bidders. SingTel, Axiata and Telenor already have extensive mobile operations across South East Asia.
Japan's KDDI Corp., which opened an office in Myanmar late last year, and South Korea's SK Telecom are expected to bid. Caribbean operator Digicel Group has also shown interest.
The three state-owned Chinese operators -- China Mobile Ltd., China Telecom Corp. Ltd. and China Unicom Ltd.
-- are also likely to have bid.
However, Lu said the Chinese players had spurned their opportunities during the past 20 years, when China was the Myanmar government's biggest economic partner and political ally. "I think the Burmese are very excited to see other operators in the market," he said.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading