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Google’s Eric Schmidt goes to Myanmar

Google is the first high-profile tech company executive to visit Myanmar in the wake of reforms that prompted Western nations to ease sanctions following decades of military dictatorship.

Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, pressing his belief in the advantage of being a first mover, will be in Myanmar on Friday, visiting the country with the third-lowest rate of Internet access in the world.

The trip follows his controversial visit in January to North Korea, where there is no discernible Internet at all, according to the World Bank.

But there is more to the difference between North Korea and Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – than 1 percent (the proportion of people in Myanmar with an Internet connection.)

Pyongyang is showing no signs of opening up, while Myanmar has transformed itself through a wave of economic and political reforms into a potential fount of opportunity for foreign businesspeople.

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Those reforms have unchained the Internet, for a start. Once among the most heavily censored in the world, Myanmar’s websites are now effectively free, according to free speech activists.

 “The scope and depth of content found to be filtered were drastically reduced” compared to earlier years, according to a 2012 analysis by the OpenNet Initiative, a US-Canadian Internet censorship watchdog.

The reforms have also induced the United States and other Western countries to lift almost all the economic sanctions they had imposed on the former military government. That has made business possible for Western firms that are now chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action in Asia’s last virgin market – one that is 60 million strong.

Mr. Schmidt is visiting several countries in Asia “to connect with local partners and Googlers who are working to improve the lives of many millions of people across the region by helping them get online an access the world’s information for the first time in the next few years,” Google said in a statement.

In Myanmar he will make a speech to entrepreneurs, computer enthusiasts, and business leaders before meeting government leaders.

If he has his eye out for business opportunities, though, he is unlikely to spot any just around the corner. In the longer run, the prospect of a more prosperous Myanmar carries with it a rapidly expanding market for information technology products, but the country is currently the poorest in Asia, where even electricity supplies are unreliable.

Internet access is not only paltry – ahead of only North Korea and East Timor in World Bank ratings – but also excruciatingly slow and prone to sudden cuts. There is even an “I Hate Myanmar Internet Connection” page on Facebook, illustrated by a cartoon of a man, bug-eyed and screaming with frustration as he pulls his hair out.

“This page shall be liked by 60 million people,” reads one comment on the page by ZawKe Htay, referring to the size of the country’s population.

Mobile phone access is also among the lowest in the world; only 9 percent of Myanmar’s citizens had a mobile phone at the beginning of this year, compared to 70 percent in nearby Cambodia. And in neighboring Thailand there were more cell phones than citizens, according to government figures. 

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The government hopes to increase access in Myanmar to 80 percent by 2016, it said in January.

The number of mobile phone owners is limited both by inadequate network infrastructure and the high price of SIM cards, which cost $226 the last time any were put on sale.

But President Thein Sein has made mobile telephones a key element of his government’s policy. In January the authorities invited international tenders for two telecoms licenses, which should be granted by next June.

SIM cards could cost just a few dollars, putting them within reach of most consumers, if the president has his way, according to his spokesman earlier this month.

Improved telecommunications would increase broadband speed and make Internet connections faster and more reliable. Cheaper SIM cards would open up the telephone handset market. Google, as the largest Internet company in the world and the maker of the Android platform for smartphones, stands to profit from both developments.