(as Marcus J. Butler)
Photo: Motorcycle taxi drivers wearing Digicel-branded t-shirts, given to them as part of the company’s marketing strategy, wait for customers in Naypyidaw in June (Alex Bookbinder).
Eleven contenders remain in the race to secure one of the two mobile operator licences to be issued in Burma on June 27. But none have made their presence felt quite like Jamaica-based Digicel, whose bid is backed by local conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings and George Soros’ Quantum Strategic Partners.
Digicel has had a presence in Burma since 2009, long before the government announced its intention to liberalize the telecoms sector. The company sponsors Burma’s football federation and Special Olympics teams, and in an attempt to muster last-minute brand awareness, enthusiastic promoters have been stationed on street corners across Rangoon and Naypyidaw for the past week, handing out flyers promoting Digicel’s bid.
“It’s a historic day for Digicel because we have just submitted our tender document [for a telecoms licence] to the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” said Digicel’s chief executive Denis O’Brien in Naypyidaw on Monday. The world’s 65th-largest mobile provider, Digicel is best known for its previous forays into underserved markets across the Caribbean and South Pacific.
O’Brien announced an ambitious timeline for Digicel’s proposed operations in Burma, which the company intends to launch in December. “We will launch our 4G data and voice network, achieving 52 percent population cover by the end of 2013,” O’Brien said. “This coverage will increase to 96 percent [of the] population by 2016.” He also announced plans to roll out 7,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable and establish 23,000 WiFi hotspots around the country.
In 2012, the company proposed a partnership with state-run Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications to upgrade Burma’s skeletal mobile infrastructure. After its proposal was rejected in favor of an open tender, the company entered into its current three-way partnership to vie for an operator licence.
The consortium is up against better-capitalized players on the licence shortlist, including SingTel from Singapore, India’s Bharti Airtel, and Telenor from Norway. A consortium led by China Mobile and Vodafone—the two largest network operators in the world—recently pulled out of the runnings, claiming an operation in Burma would “not meet the strict internal investment criteria to which both Vodafone and China Mobile adhere.”
The fact that Digicel has made it to the final round, despite its small size, is likely a function of its long focus on Burma and a high level of planning. “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve done something very strategic in order to guarantee a very, very fast launch date … as we are the only bidder to have signed 5,641 tower leases, and we have spent 18 months establishing all of these sites,” said O’Brien.