Digicel takes on the big boys in Myanmar

Here’s a piece I wrote about the, for some somewhat obscure, Digicel and its efforts to win a slice of Myanmar’s mobile pie. You can read the rest here.

SINGAPORE, April 29 | Sun Apr 28, 2013 4:54pm EDT
(Reuters) – Cellular operator Digicel Group Ltd jumped into Myanmar early and big, hiring staff, funding local sports, negotiating land deals for thousands of cell tower sites and signing up hundreds of partners for retail outlets.
The strategy helped propel it onto the shortlist for a mobile licence in one of the world’s last mobile frontiers, putting an operator that ranks 65th globally in terms of customers up against giants such as Vodafone Group Plc.
Whether its strategy pays off or not, industry insiders say, Digicel, largely unknown outside the Caribbean and some Pacific islands, has shaken up a usually conservative industry.
“They have been a disruptive force,” said Roger Barlow, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications consultant who has worked in Asia for more than 25 years. “Some of the big guys tend to look down their noses at them but they shouldn’t because they’re becoming a credible player.”
Myanmar this month short-listed 12 consortia for two licences it plans to grant foreign operators in late June. The government wants to expand mobile penetration from less than 4 percent to up to 80 percent by 2015-16.
While Digicel is up against behemoths such as Vodafone, China Mobile Ltd and Telenor ASA, several other big players failed to make the list – among them South Korea’s SK Telecom Co Ltd and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Holding SAE.

Myanmar’s mobile revolution too slow for many

A piece I wrote from Yangon on the state of mobile communications in Myanmar

Mobile revolution in Myanmar is on the cards, but too slow for many | Reuters:

Myanmar is on the cusp of a mobile revolution. Only it’s happening way too slowly for many locals.

Last week the government invited expressions of interest for two mobile phone licenses – a first step towards increasing mobile penetration from its current 5-10 percent to 80 percent in three years. That would lift it off the bottom of the world’s ladder of mobile use and put it on a par with neighbors like Bangladesh.

Slow connection: Myanmar test for IT crowd

Here’s a piece I did for Reuters on the state of IT in Myanmar. The Economist pipped us to the post slightly, but always nice to know other people are thinking along the same lines.

Myanmar has fewer phones per capita than any other country and probably the fewest Internet connections, and that has regional telecoms and IT companies licking their lips.
But behind those statistics lies more than simply a virgin market waiting to be tapped. Myanmar has been run by generals for decades, leaving not only pent-up demand for connectivity, but also a complex web of interests and a unique ecosystem of technological make-do. All of which will require careful navigation by would-be investors.
A recent gathering of techies in Yangon’s Myanmar Info-Tech complex illustrates the promise, changes and problems Myanmar presents as the next frontier for investors.
The meeting was organized by a loose triumvirate of business-oriented folk, bloggers and the country’s IT diaspora. It was a so-called barcamp – an unstructured conference and chat-fest whose format was dreamed by up California techies tired of the exclusive, closed-door meets that are a regular feature of Silicon Valley.

Rest of the story at reuters.com

Southeast Asia’s Third Mobile Tier

The mobile revolution is moving from second tier countries in Southeast Asia to the third and final tier. Whereas previously Indonesia and the Philippines were seeing the biggest growth in mobile Internet traffic, now it’s Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia which top the list in terms of user- and usage-growth, according to the Opera State of the Mobile Web report for July:

    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (6415.0 % and 470.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of unique users (1207.5 % and 179.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of data transferred (3826.6 % and 353.2 %, respectively)

Of course these figures are from a low base, and the Opera data is not the easiest to trawl through. (The Opera mobile report is always interesting reading, so long as you take into account that the Opera browser is for many people a Symbian browser and so of declining popularity in some quarters. Also their data is never presented in quite the order one would like, so you have to dig. )

Looking at the figures in more detail, and throwing them into a spreadsheet of my own, it’s clear that Burma is definitely an outlier. Cambodia’s growth is impressive, but Burma’s is by far the greatest out of all 27 countries surveyed. Here’s how it looks:

2011-07 Page view growth SEA

So is the Burma usage real, or is this just a jump from nothing to slightly more than nothing? I suspect it may actually be a sizeable jump. Opera are coy about the actual number of users (so we may actually be dealing with a small dataset). But the figures suggest that this is a real spurt in usage: Burmese mobile users are transferring more data per page view than any other of the 27 countries surveyed, and the page views per user is on a par with the Philippines and Thailand.

I’d cautiously suggest that Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, are beginning to show exhibit some of the signs of what one might pompously call “mobile societies”: using the mobile phone as an Internet device as a regular part of their activities. Take the page views per user, for example, which measures how much they’re using the mobile phone to view the Internet (Brunei seems to be in a league of its own; I don’t know what’s going on there, except that in terms of nightlife, I’d have to say not much):

2010-07 Page views per user SEA

It’s probably too much to conclude that mobile phones as Internet devices are now mainstream in this third tier of the region, but it’s a healthy sign, with lots of interesting implications.

Southeast Asia’s Viral Infection

Southeast Asia is fast developing a reputation as the most dangerous place on the Internet. It’s not a reputation the region can afford to have.

By one count Thailand has risen to be the country with the most number of malware infections, by one account, and by another to be the second, all in the past few months.

PandaLabs’ report on the second quarter of 2011 [PDF] lists Thailand as having the second highest rate of malware infection (after China) with nearly 57% of computers scanned by their antivirus software as being infected. The global average is about 40%. Thailand was second in the previous quarter too, but with an even higher infection rate, of 65%. Most of these infections seem to come from worms.

Indeed, this trend seems to have started last year. The AntiPhishing Working Group’s report for the second half of 2010 lists as top in terms of infected countries–nearly 67%, higher than China’s 63%. (I should point out that the chief analyst for the APWG is Luis Corrons, who is technical director of PandaLabs, so the source of this data may actually be one place.)

Indonesia, meanwhile, now equals the United States as the highest single source of Distributed Denial of Service attacks, according to data from Kaspersky (Expect More DDoS Attacks Tomorrow, published on Monday):

The US and Indonesia topped the rating with each country accounting for 5% of all DDoS traffic. The US’s leading position is down to the large number of computers in the country – a highly attractive feature for botmasters. Meanwhile, the large number of infected computers in Indonesia means it also ranks highly in the DDoS traffic rating. According to data from Kaspersky Security Network, Kaspersky Lab’s globally-distributed threat monitoring network, in Q2 2011 almost every second machine (48%) in Indonesia was subjected to a local malware infection attempt.

A couple of points here:

  • Indonesia has a lot fewer computers connected to the Internet compared to the U.S.: about 40 million vs 245 million. This means that Indonesia is generating 5 times as much DDOS traffic per computer as the U.S.
  • The discrepancies in the infection rates between Kaspersky and Panda are artifacts of the way these companies measure these things. Basically, as far as I understand, they gather data from users, so a lot depends on just how popular that particular piece of antivirus software is in the country, and on factors such as the likelihood of people actually using antivirus software.

The Kaspersky report shows that Southeast Asia features heavily in the proportion of DDOS traffic:

  • Indonesia 5%
  • Philippines 4%
  • Vietnam 4%
  • Thailand 4%
  • Singapore 4%
  • Malaysia 3%

Internet traffic optimizer Akamai, meanwhile, reported that [PDF, may have to answer a short survey before reading] Burma (Myanmar) accounted for 13% of the world’s attack traffic (i.e. DDOS traffic). This was the first time that Burma appeared on the list. I’ve spoken to Akamai and they’re not clear why this is the case, but they did point to the fact that their data covers the first quarter of 2011, a few months after a massive DDOS attack on Burma which happened to coincide with the country’s elections.

The suspicion at the time that this was self-inflicted: basically pro-government hackers preventing Burmese from using the Internet to get alternative sources of election information. Makes sense. Akamai’s theory is that this traffic that they saw in the first quarter of this year was residual traffic from those massive attacks. But the truth is that no one knows.

More generally, it’s not good that Southeast Asia is now becoming this malware and DDOS capital. There are lots of reasons for it, which I’ll be exploring as part of a project in the months to come.

Full version of the Kaspersky report: DDoS attacks in Q2 2011 – Securelist

Burma’s Firewall Fighters

Another good report on Burma’s failed efforts to stop information getting out, from the Commitee to Protect Journalists:

Those fears are driving Burma’s undercover reporters to become more innovative. DVB’s Moe Aye said his in-country reporters now check in with editors by pay phone at predetermined times to mitigate the risk of communicating on lines that may be tapped by authorities.

In-country journalists have their own clandestine procedures. One undercover DVB reporter secretly reported on the trial of a popular political prisoner by using his mobile telephone to record the detainee entering the courthouse. Later that day, he used the Internet to transmit the footage in time to meet DVB’s production deadline.

“They say, ‘Don’t ask me how, just wait and it will be there.’” Moe Aye said. “I don’t ask, so I can’t tell you how they do it. They have their own ways.”  

Although I still believe it’s important not to overstate the influence of the Internet in opening up a country and placing a brake on the brutality of regimes (Burma has shown no lack of appetite for repression, and can pull the plug on the Internet at will, firstly, and secondly information and images still found their way out even in the pre-Web uprising of 1988), it’s great to read of how young Burmese are finding ways to report on what’s going on there.

Burma’s Firewall Fighters

The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007

Reuters

I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.

or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:

“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”

There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.

First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.

It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.

Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens

“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”

They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.

Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.

More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.

I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.

By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.

The Future of News

This is the latest despatch from Loose Wire Service, a sister service to this blog that provides newspapers and other print publications with a weekly column by yours truly. Rates are reasonable: Email me if you’re interested.

Jeremy Wagstaff discusses how the Internet has redefined journalism and the emergence of “hyperlocal” news

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was asked the other day to address a room full of media types about changes in consumer behavior; where, they wanted to know, are people looking for news in this new digital world?

It’s always a bad idea to get me to talk in public, especially on this subject, since I think it’s the wrong one. Or at least, the wrong way of looking at the subject. I gave them two reasons:

First, there are no consumers of news anymore. In fact, you’ve probably heard this said a lot, here and elsewhere that, in the era of MySpace, Wikipedia, OhmyNews and citizen journalism, everyone is a journalist, and therefore a producer, of news. No one is just a consumer.

Second, there is no news. Or at least there is no longer a traditional, established and establishment definition of what is news. Instead we have information. Some of it moving very fast, so it looks like news. But still information.

A commuter taking a photo of a policeman extracting bribes from drivers and then posting the picture on his blog? It’s not news, but it’s not just information either. It could be news to the policeman, and if he’s busted because of it could be good news to drivers in that town.

We journalists have been schooled in a kind of journalism that goes back to the days when a German called Paul Julius Reuter was delivering it by pigeon. His problem was a simple one: getting new information quickly from A to B. It could be stock prices; it could be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

*****

That definition of news has remained with us until today.

A lot of the time it remains a good one. When terrorists hit, we’d rather know sooner than later. If stocks in our portfolio are losing their value in a crash, we’d prefer to get that information now.

When Buddhist monks hit the streets of towns in Myanmar we look to AFP, Reuters and AP to get the news out.

But the Internet has changed a lot of this. First off, everyone is connected. By connected I mean they can look up anything they like so long as they’re near an Internet-connected computer. Which for a lot of people now means a 3G phone.

Even if you don’t have one, the chances are you’ll be in spitting range of a computer that is connected to the Internet. Or you could get you information by SMS — from news sites, from colleagues, from family members. It’s not that we’re not far from a gadget. We’re not far from information.

This has a critical impact on the idea of news.

*****

Because we’re informed, news doesn’t hit us in the same way it used to when we didn’t.

True, if someone hits a tall building with an airliner, that’s news to all of us. The U.S. invades or leaves Iraq; that’s news.

But the rest of the time, news is a slippery beast that means different things to different people.

That’s because there’s another kind of news we’re all interested in. It’s hyperlocal news. It’s what is around us. In our neighborhood. Since moving house I’m much less interested in gubernatorial elections and much more in anything that anybody says about en bloc sales and house prices.

That is hyperlocal news, and it’s where most people spend their day. No nuclear weapons being fired? No terrorist attacks? No meltdown in the financial markets? OK, so tell me more about en bloc sales. Actually, this is just part of hyperlocal news.

If you’ve used Facebook, you’ll know there’s another kind of addictive local news: your friends’ status updates. A status update, for those of you who haven’t tried Facebook, is basically a short message that accompanies your profile indicating what you’re up to at that point.

I think of it a wire feed by real people. Of course it’s not news as we’d think of it, but news as in an answer to the questions “What’s up?” “What’s new?””What’s happening?” “What’s new with you?”

In that sense it’s news. I call it hyper-hyperlocal news. Even though those people are spread all over the world, they’re all part of my friends network, and that means for me they’re local.

So news isn’t always what we think of as news. News has always meant something slightly different to the nonmedia person; our obsession with prioritizing stories in a summary, the most important item first (How many dead? What color was their skin? Any Americans involved?) has been exposed as something only we tend to obsess over.

Don’t believe me? Look at the BBC website. While the editors were putting up stories about Musharraf, North Korea and Japan, the users were swapping stories about Britney Spears splitting with her manager, the dangers of spotty face, and the admittedly important news that the Sex Pistols might be getting back together.

Of course, I’m not saying journalists are from Mars and readers are from Venus. It just looks that way.

What we’re really seeing is that now that people have access to information, they are showing us what they’re interested in. Unsurprisingly, they’re interested in different stuff. What we call audience fragmentation — niche audiences for specialized interests — is actually what things have always been about.

If we’re a geek we go for our news to Slashdot. We want gossip? We go to Gawker. We want to change the world? We go to WorldChangingOnline.org The Internet makes the Long Tail of all those niche audiences and interests possible, and possibly profitable.

What we’re seeing with the Internet is not a revolution against the values of old media; a revolution against the notion that it’s only us who can dictate what is news.

What we’re seeing is that people get their news from whoever can help them answer the question they’re asking. We want the headlines, we go to CNN. But the rest of the time, “news” is for us just part of a much bigger search for information, to stay informed.

AsiaMedia :: Oh my! The future of news

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When a Country Goes Dark

image

Ministers’ homes at the new capital, Pyinmana

Burma has shown us that we’re not as clever, or free, as we thought we are.

It’s a sign of how the Burmese generals don’t really understand things that it took them so long to cut off the Internet:

Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association reported that the government cut off all Internet access in the country on Friday morning and they said that all Internet cafes in the country also have been closed. The Web site of the Myanmar Post & Telecommunications, the government-run telecommunications provider, appears to be down.

The Internet was something we didn’t have to help us back in 1988 in covering the uprising. Actually we didn’t have very much: a total of about eight international telephone lines into the country, the official radio which would broadcast once or twice a day, and which we’d monitor courtesy of a weird contraption in a special room that also spewed out garbled copies of the official news agency reports.

We’d spend most of the day in the Bangkok office trying to get a line in, cajoling and sweet-talking the female or male (we knew no shame) operators into trying again, and again, to get a line. When we got a connection we’d ask the person who picked up as many questions as we could, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or just some guy who happened to have a telephone. Once a day we’d pick up the monitoring by the U.S. embassy of other official radio broadcasts and pore over them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Occasionally we’d interview someone who managed to get out; my first ever wire service story was the Dutch ambassador going on the record at Don Muang airport about some of the horrors he’d seen. When we did get into Burma all we had in the office was an ancient telex machine.

Nowadays, 19 years on, there’s more technology out there than we could dream of back then. Not just the Internet: camera phones, mobile phones, satellites, GPS. But I’m also surprised at how little these really help. Burmese have bravely organized demonstrations via cellphone, and sent out information by Internet, but those channels are largely closed now, leaving us to join a Facebook group, wear red, or turn to satellite to try to glean information.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has analyzed satellite photos which it says “pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.” This is more about the continuing (and long-running) war against insurgents and populations in border areas caught up in those wars. But it’s instructive to see their before and after satellite photos, like these ones:

[PHOTOGRAPH]

Before-and-after satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on 11 November 2000, (top), and again on 13 December 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human rights group, Free Burma Rangers, reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the AAAS analysis of images. (Lat: 18.42 N Long: 97.23 E.)

Credit: Top image: © GeoEye, Inc. Bottom image: © 2007 DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS has a Google Earth layer here to illustrate the before and after. The full report (PDF, big file) is here.

The AAAS is currently collecting satellite images of urban areas to see what it can glean; it reminds me of 1999 in East Timor when satellite imagery showed up some of the destruction cause by the retreating Indonesian army. But such images can do little more than illustrate something that has happened, and not bring to life the actual suffering and abuses on the ground.

Indeed, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that technology can do so little to pry open a country if its government decides to close it off. We talk about information wanting to be free, but we tend to forget how that information still requires power and a channel in order to escape. Shut off the power, shut off the channel and the information is as much a prisoner as the Burmese people presently are.

AAAS – AAAS News Release

Poisoning the Digital Well

I’m following events in Burma as closely as most, partly because I covered the last uprising 19 years ago. Back then plain clothes officers would spread rumors about poisoned water pots placed around the city for demonstrators to drink from. Now they’re apparently trying to poison the well of pooled information, if this excellent BBC report is anything to go by:

[London-based Burma exile Ko Htike] described how he has received personal e-mails – and protesters within Burma have received mobile phone text messages – spreading false information and rumours, for example about military crackdowns on protesters.

The channel the protesters use to get information out is straightforward, but involves huge risks. Burma is not a place to take any kind of risk: the reach of the government is long, and their mercy small, even if their tech savvy is weakened since the fall of Khin Nyunt.

I worry this protest won’t be enough, however. Sometimes all the information in the world isn’t enough to stop repressive regimes being repressive.

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Burma cyber-dissidents crack censorship