In the early hours of August 5, Myanmar completely disappeared from the worldwide internet. The total outage followed a series of problems with the power supply to the terrestrial internet cables that disrupted the connection to the country’s subsea link on and off for two weeks and caused the country’s normally slow internet service to grind almost to a halt.
When smaller outages continued throughout the fall, many of the country’s beleaguered netizens began to seriously ask: Why does Myanmar’s internet seem to break so much?
People often imagine the internet as a giant wireless cloud, when in reality it consists of the same thing electric telecommunications infrastructure has been comprised of for 150 years: long, physical wires laid out around the world that burrow under the ocean, stringing continent to continent. In general, the more diverse connections a country has to the worldwide network, the more stable or robust the internet is.
Myanmar currently has two main connections to the worldwide network: one “dry” cross-border cable to Thailand and one “wet” or submarine cable known as SEA-ME-WE 3. There is a small capacity Internet link to China that was briefly operational again in late October, but it has been mostly out of order because of heavy rains, planned upgrades, and routing issues.
If one is reliant on only three connections (unlike, say, the 10 submarine cables in New York City area alone), the loss of one important link can mean mayhem on the network. When the connection to SEA-ME-WE 3 first broke in late July, Myanmar’s Internet was down to 20-percent capacity. Some people in the country could still connect, but just barely.
Outages and breaks on terrestrial internet cables are surprisingly common, even in countries with more robust networks. Steven Huter of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), an organisation that works to beef up educational networks in developing countries, says that whenever “somebody’s digging for roads or for water or for sewer or for agriculture, any number of things, you’re at risk of cutting a cable”.
Submarine cables are less susceptible, but a subsea earthquake shifting rocks or an anchor docked in a rough storm can easily slice through one. Subsea cable breaks typically take 3-6 weeks to fix, as ships first have to find both ends of the severed cable before it can be fused back together.
One of the main factors dragging down the Myanmar internet is that there is simply not enough capacity or bandwidth on the domestic network and international connections to support the amount of people going online. Doug Madory, with Renesys, says that “unmet capacity for increased demand” is causing the extreme latencies, ie slowness, that Internet users in Burma feel, especially during the late afternoon, peak use time.
Conspiracy theories about Myanmar’s stumbling internet abound, from suspicion over why problems seem to occur every year near the anniversary of the massive 8-8-88 democracy protests to claims that the government deliberately slows the internet down (but will juice a connection for the proper kickback). U Myo Swe, Chief Engineer of the IT Department at Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), the body that oversees the construction, functioning, and regulation of the Internet in Myanmar, recently denied such allegations.
Current internet penetration rates stand at a paltry 1 pc (though some argue that this doesn’t fully account for the number of usersat Internet cafes). The most common Internet connection is ADSL, slow but cheap to install because it runs on the widest spread telecommunications infrastructure in the country, the fixed telephone line. But only about 1 pc of the country has one.
Compounding the problem is the incredibly high cost for access and the incredibly low international bandwidth, 900 times less than neighboring Singapore and the lowest in the region. (Bandwidth describes the capacity to upload and download information over a period of time.) Citizens who are able to go online have an incredibly small capacity to download and upload information. The country’s primitive domestic telecommunications infrastructure goes hand in hand with the sparse international infrastructure to contribute to the problems plaguing the Myanmar Internet. In a recent report, Terabit Consulting called the low international bandwidth and underdeveloped telecommunication space “a major obstacle to economic development.”
According to Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at the regional information and communication technology think tank LIRNasia, Myanmar was excluded from the submarine cable SEA-ME-WE 4 that links Bangladesh to the worldwide internet, because the former military junta was delinquent in paying its share for SEA-ME-WE-3. The MPT is now playing catch-up.
In October, the MPT more than doubled the bandwidth on the cross-border fiber link to Thailand, saying the new capacity will be functional by the start of the 2013 Southeast Asia Games (SEA Games) that Myanmar is hosting in December. They recently announced plans to bring another submarine cable into the country, SEA-ME-WE 5, (whose projected landing in the beach town of Ngwe Saung would diversify the landing stations in the country and make the network more robust.)
Rumors are also floating around cyberspace that the MPT will be joining the consortium to fund the Asia-Africa-Europe 1 (AAE-1) cable, but as of yet details about it remain speculative. When asked, the MPT said simply, “We are not yet decided.” Neither cable would be up and functional beforelate 2015, if not 2016.
More than one consultant in the industry, skeptical about both AAE-1 and SEA-ME-WE-5, suggested that Myanmar would be better off joining a private cable, such as the Bay of Bengal Gateway system that is projected to be operational by the end of 2014.
In June the MPT presented at an International Telecommunications Union conferenceabout the potential launch of its own satellite for Internet. Saeed Khan of LIRNasia is not alone in suggesting that Myanmar should instead focus on expanding its cross-border fiber networks to Thailand and Bangladesh.
But increased international capacity won’t amount to much if the domestic network can’t handle it. The MPT is currently working toexpand intra-city fiber networks, and Japan has taken the lead in doubling the fiber backbone between Myanmar’s three largest cities. Working with the MPT, they are also boosting the internet’s international routing capabilities in time for the SEA Games, as well as adding a temporary 4G network. Spokespeople for NTT Communicationssaid that internet users in the country should feel an uptick in speed and reliability by the 2013 SEA Games.
Getting a Google Global Cache or working with a Content Delivery Network to host popular content locally could also increase local speeds. With a Google Global Cache (GGC) a popular YouTube video (or website for a CDN) would be downloaded once and stored locally for further viewing, putting less strain on the country’s limited international bandwidth. The MPT’s Myo Swe says they are speaking with several companies, but ”Google [would] have to propose [it].”
In June Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo became the first international companies awarded licences to provide mobile services in Myanmar. Saeed Khan from LIRNasia thinks the government should continue liberalizing the market and “establish an independent regulator who will oversee the functionality of the private sector”. Earlier this year, the MPT did announcethat they would privatize and set up shop as public corporation in partnership with an international telecommunications company (although the MPT won’t confirm which companies are in the running). Whether the market will become a truly level playing field, only time will tell.
Many see mobile as a quick salve to the country’s connectivity woes. Doug Madory of Renesys points out that, “As a ‘last-mile’ technology, mobile services are far easier to deploy and maintain than running lines to every business and apartment.” But ultimately, whatever the “last mile” technology used to connect to the internet may be, both mobile and fixed broadband internet users are still reliant on the underlying international links connecting
Myanmar to the worldwide Internet. More mobile users simply means more people will be logging onto a network that is alreadyseverely over capacity, unless, the new mobile companies are also increasing the long-haul fiber connections.
According to one consultant at the September Myanmar Connect 2013 conference, Telenor is almost done with a terrestrial link connecting Myanmar to Bangladesh. When reached for confirmation, the company only responded by email to say that, although they were evaluating options for international fiber expansion, “It is not possible at this time to confirm which links will be established.”
At a recent business incubator launch in Yangon, optimism about doing business in the country, despite the known internet issues, was running high, even amidst a citywide power outage thatleft attendees with no AC or Internet. Saeed Khan says the country should look at what its neighbors have done in the telecommunications markets and “learn from everybody’s mistakes.” Although essentially starting from scratch, he says the country is positioned well. For Myanmar, he said, “The sky is the limit.”
Naomi Gingold is a freelance reporter based in Yangon.